What changing statutes of limitations could mean for child sex abuse survivors

Victims would have a choice, one advocate said.

Pa. AG Josh Shapiro unveils a grand jury report about child sex abuse in sex Pa. dioceses.

Pa. AG Josh Shapiro unveils a grand jury report about child sex abuse in sex Pa. dioceses.

Sarah Anne Hughes / The Incline
MJ Slaby

Updated 9:45 a.m.

When people first come to the Center for Victims in the South Side to seek counseling or therapy, they usually aren’t there because of the legal system, Clinical Director Cindy Snyder said. They’re there because they’re struggling with what happened to them.

For people who were sexually abused by priests as children, that means physical, emotional and spiritual violations of trust, she said.

“Child victims have no idea that these [statutes of limitations] are even out there. It’s not until adulthood that they say, ‘I should report this,'” said Kristen Houser, chief public affairs officer for Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape. Victims of child sexual abuse in Pennsylvania can file criminal charges against their abuser until they are 50 years old, or they have until they are 30 to pursue a civil case.

The grand jury report detailing 301 “predator priests” in six Pa. dioceses that was released in August recommended, among other things, eliminating the criminal statute of limitations for child sexual abuse and creating a “civil window” allowing victims over 30 to have their chance in court.

A vote by the Pa. House is expected this fall on Pa. Senate Bill 261, which would extend and eliminate statutes of limitation in child sex abuse cases, according to House Leader Dave Reed.

If the statutes of limitations on child sexual abuse were to change, the impact wouldn’t be immediate.

“Let’s say they decide to change it tomorrow … the problem with that is such a change would not effect existing cases,” said David Harris, a law professor at University of Pittsburgh who specializes in criminal law and police procedure. He explained that it would only impact cases going forward.

Changing laws would make the risk of ongoing liability real for institutions, which would no longer be able to wait out allegations, Houser said. And it would give them an incentive to change policies and not just do the bare minimum when it comes to prevention.

Although Pennsylvania Catholic Congress has lobbied hard against it, Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik is open to allowing a two-year window for civil cases where the statute of limitations has expired, but wants to make sure it is constitutional and applies for all cases of child sexual abuse, not just cases against priests, WPXI reported.

The Pennsylvania Catholic Congress has said that could bankrupt the church.

Per the grand jury report, more than $5.8 million was paid over 70 years in settlements, counseling, school tuition and other bills in cases where allegations of rape and sexual abuse were made against clergy who worked in the Pittsburgh diocese, the Post-Gazette reported. The report however doesn’t clarify if the payments were made by the diocese, insurance or someone else.

Zubik also supports eliminating the statute of limitations in criminal child sex abuse cases, per WPXI.

Limiting cases

Lawmakers set statutes of limitations for crimes, Harris said, adding that the “most serious crimes” like homicide don’t have a time limit for criminal cases.

The limits ensure that the accused has a fair chance to defend themselves, he said. “At a certain point, it becomes too difficult to mount a defense.” After so many years, it’s difficult to find witnesses — they might be dead or hundreds of miles away — or even public documents, Harris said.

While victims of child sexual abuse have more time to pursue these cases over civil ones, it can be difficult, in part due to the amount of evidence they need to have, Houser said.

Children don’t remember things the same way that adults do, so a survivor will remember abuse that happened to them as a child differently than they would remember the experience if it happened to them as an adult, Snyder added.”It’s not that it didn’t happen, it’s just going to sound different.”

It’s like putting together a puzzle after all the pieces are thrown in the air and some are missing, Snyder said.

A survivor’s other recourse is a civil case, where the evidentiary standard is not as rigid, but the statute of limitations is shorter, Houser said.

“The limitations period might be shorter for civil cases because it’s typically easier for victims to sue perpetrators than for the government to prosecute them,” Kermit Roosevelt, a professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, told The Incline in an email. In civil cases, limitations give defendants peace of mind after a certain period of time and make sure judicial resources are going to newer cases that have more evidence and witnesses, he said.

For victims, abuse can disrupt their ability to go to school or work, so funds from a civil case can help with earnings and health care costs, Houser said. For defendants, she said, “financial liability is a motivator like no other” when it comes to making change in policy.

The Pennsylvania grand jury recommended that victims of priests’ abuse should be given a 2-year window to file a civil case, even if they’re older than 30. While some say that’s unconstitutional, Houser said there are victims willing to use their cases to test that argument in court.

“This is not something where people can show up, fill out a form, and be given money. They have to provide ample evidence, and go through the court process,” she said.

On Friday, three civil lawsuits were filed against the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, Bishop David Zubik and Cardinal Donald Wuerl by Pittsburgh attorney Alan Perer, TribLive reported. In all three cases, the statute of limitations had passed, but Perer told WPXI that his clients weren’t able to purse the cases within the limit due to the diocese covering up the claims. The attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

For survivors, it boils down to choice, Snyder said. When a person is abused, their right to choose is taken away. Even if the abuse happened 25 years ago, Snyder said knowing that they have options is helpful.

“Victims who are adults dealing with childhood trauma are not terribly keen on going into the legal system, but they should always have a choice,” she said.