Two grand juries have exposed systematic child sexual abuse covered up by the Catholic Church in Philadelphia, convicted serial predator Jerry Sandusky's crimes have drawn international attention to Penn State, and, most recently, state prosecutors have leveled charges of widespread pedophilia and official silence in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese. Now the Pennsylvania legislature may finally be ready to show mercy to victims.
Legislation to extend the time limits for criminal charges and civil complaints in abuse cases would be late in coming but nonetheless welcome. For too long, the legislature has bowed to church and insurance industry lobbying, seemingly unable to grasp the impact of the crimes on victims.
The very shame and fear that abuse inflicts prevents many survivors from reporting the crimes for years, if at all. They deserve a chance to heal and obtain justice.
One of the most dedicated opponents of legislation to give more victims that chance has changed his mind. State Rep. Thomas Caltagirone (D., Berks) had his epiphany after Attorney General Kathleen Kane announced a pair of disturbing grand jury findings of serial clergy abuse in western and central Pennsylvania. One grand jury reported that abuse was so rampant in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese that a bishop kept a chart of payouts to victims, even as local law enforcement participated in the cover-up. Another charged three former regional leaders of the Franciscan order with allowing a friar to abuse more than 80 children at a high school in Johnstown.
It's been 11 years since legislation extending the statute of limitations was suggested by then-Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham based on a grand jury's charges of widespread abuse and secrecy. The recommendation was reaffirmed by subsequent grand juries.
Because of the nature of these violations and the long-lasting damage they cause, new information often demands further examination over the course of years and decades. Consider the recent revelation that Penn State settled four suits by victims who say the late legendary football coach Joe Paterno or members of his staff knew of abuse allegations against Sandusky dating to the 1970s. The university maintains that there is no evidence of institutional complicity, but the settlements raise serious doubts.
The legislation being considered would eliminate the time limit for criminal cases and extend the civil limit until a victim reaches the age of 50. Besides forcing more abusers to face consequences, it could heighten institutional vigilance.