Grand Jury Proposes Changes To Combat Priest Child Abuse

WARNING: Some of the content of this article may be graphic in nature and offensive to the reader.

HARRISBURG – A State Grand Jury that reported more than 300 Pennsylvania priests raped and molested more than a thousand victims, has proposed some changes to help limit, if not stop the abuses and their subsequent cover up.

Following the two-year Grand Jury hearing, the jurors said the victims deserve an accounting by the church and the guilty priests.

“That historical record is highly important, for present and future purposes. The thousands of victims of clergy child sex abuse in Pennsylvania deserve an accounting, to use as best they can to try to move on with their lives. And the citizens of Pennsylvania deserve an accounting as well, to help determine how best to make appropriate improvements in the law,” the report said. “At the same time, we recognize that much has changed over the last fifteen years. We agreed to hear from each of the six dioceses we investigated, so that they could inform us about recent developments in their jurisdictions. In response, five of the bishops submitted statements to us, and the sixth, the bishop of Erie, appeared before us in person. His testimony impressed us as forthright and heartfelt. It appears that the church is now advising law enforcement of abuse reports more promptly. Internal review processes have been established. Victims are no longer quite so invisible.”

The jurors went on to say the vast majority of “individual leaders of the church have largely escaped public accountability. Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades. Monsignors, auxiliary bishops, bishops, archbishops, cardinals have mostly been protected; many, including some named in this report, have been promoted. Until that changes,
we think it is too early to close the book on the Catholic Church sex scandal.”

In response to the Grand Jury findings in Pennsylvania, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is pushing for the Child Victim’s Act.

“The revelations and sheer breadth of child sexual abuse by clergy members in Pennsylvania underscore the pervasiveness of this abhorrent crime and needs to be a call for action here in New York. Currently under state law, the majority of child sexual abuse offenses cannot be prosecuted after five years, allowing abusers to go free and commit further abuse. That must change,” Cuomo said. “For years, I have called for the passage of the Child Victims Act to provide victims with a path to justice, and for years Senate Republicans have blocked it. It’s far past time the Senate does the right thing, pass this bill and stand up for the victims of sexual abuse.”

Jurors reported that change is needed because “we spent 24 months dredging up the most depraved behavior, only to find that the laws protect most of its perpetrators, and leave its victims with nothing. We say laws that do that need to change.”

Among the suggested steps to change things, the jurors ask the Pennsylvania legislature to “stop shielding child sexual predators behind the criminal statute of limitations. Thanks to a recent amendment, the current law permits victims to come forward until age 50. That’s better than it was before, but still not good enough; we should just get rid of it. We heard from plenty of victims who are now in their 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, and even
one who was 83 years old. We want future victims to know they will always have the force of the criminal law behind them, no matter how long they live. And we want future child predators to know they should always be looking over their shoulder – no matter how long they live.”

The jurors called for a “civil window” law, which would let older victims sue the diocese for the damage inflicted on their lives when they were kids.

“We saw these victims; they are marked for life. Many of them wind up addicted, or impaired, or dead before their time. The law in force right now gives child sex abuse victims twelve years to sue, once they turn 18. But victims who are already in their 30’s and older fell under a different law; they only got two years. For victims in this age range, the short two-year period would have expired back in the 1990’s or even earlier – long before revelations about the institutional nature of clergy sex abuse. We think that’s unacceptable. These victims ran out of time to sue before they even knew they had a case; the church was still successfully hiding its complicity. Our proposal would open a limited “window” offering them a chance, finally, to be heard in court. All we’re asking is to give those two years back,” jurors said.

Improving mandated reporting laws would also go a long way in preventing abuse or holding the abusers accountable, the Grand Jury reported.

“We saw from diocesan records that church officials, going back decades, were insisting they had no duty to report to the government when they learned of child abuse in their parishes. New laws make it harder to take that position; but we want them tighter. The law penalizes a “continuing” failure to report, but only if the abuse of “the child” is “active.” We’re not sure what that means and we don’t want any wiggle room. Make it clear that the duty to report a child abuser continues as long as there’s reason to believe he will do it again – whether or not he’s “active” on any particular day,
and whether or not he may pick a different kid next time,” the report said.

Laws addressing confidentiality agreements need to be changed as well. The Grand Jury said the Catholic Church has “been using them (confidentiality agreements) for a long time.”

The report said subpoenaed records contained quite a few confidentiality agreements, going back decades. The jurors called this ” payouts sealed by silence.”

“There are arguments on both sides about whether it’s proper to use these agreements in securing lawsuit settlements. But there should be no room for debate on one point: no non-disclosure agreement can or should apply to criminal investigations. If the subject of a civil lawsuit happens also to concern criminal activity, then a confidentiality agreement gives neither party either the right or the obligation to decline cooperation with law enforcement,” the report said.

The jurors said the proposed changes, if followed, will help hold accountable those who attack and molest or rape children.

“We believe these proposals will assist in the exposure and prosecution of child sexual abuse, and so it is within the scope of our duty to make them. But to be honest it’s not enough. We don’t just want this abuse punished by criminal and civil penalties. We want it not to happen at all. We think it’s reasonable to expect one of the world’s great religions, dedicated to the spiritual well-being of over a billion people, to find ways to organize itself so that the shepherds stop preying upon the flock. If it does nothing else, this report removes any remaining doubt that the failure to prevent abuse was a systemic failure, an institutional failure. There are things that the government can do to help. But we hope there will also be self-reflection within the church, and a deep commitment to creating a safer environment for its children,” the report said.

In performing their duty, jurors said “we have been exposed to, buried in, unspeakable crimes committed against countless children. Now we
want something to show for it. Courtesy of the long years of cover-up, we can’t charge most of the culprits. What we can do is tell our fellow citizens what happened, and try to get something done about it. That is why we make these recommendations for legal changes that respond to what we
have learned in our investigation.”

This is part three of a four part series.