In convicting a priest and a former parochial-school teacher last week of sexually assaulting a 10-year-old altar boy from the Northeast, a jury effectively opened the door to further courtroom revelations about how Archdiocese of Philadelphia officials may have shielded these and other predators.
A civil lawsuit filed by the former St. Jerome's altar boy known as "Billy Doe" - which was on hold pending the joint trial of the Rev. Charles Engelhardt and teacher Bernard Shero - could prove just as important as the criminal inquiries in finding the truth and achieving justice for sexual-abuse victims.
Without question, District Attorney Seth Williams is right to press ahead with charges for any criminal conduct revealed in a scathing 2011 grand jury report finding that church officials covered up abuse. Following the conviction on Wednesday of Engelhardt and Shero, prosecutors plan to retry another priest, James J. Brennan, accused of the attempted rape of a 14-year-old boy in 1996. A jury deadlocked on Brennan's case last year, but it convicted Msgr. William J. Lynn of child endangerment after determining that he looked the other way while assigned to investigate allegations against priests.
But to learn the whole truth about the church cover-up - as well as send a message to other institutions that might consider their own interests above those of children - victims like Billy Doe, who is now 24, will have to turn to the civil courts. There, judges and juries are empowered to expose misconduct that doesn't rise to the level of a crime.
Doe's lawyers, for instance, plan to examine the role of two Catholic bishops accused in earlier trial testimony of acting on Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua's orders to shred a 1994 memo that named 35 suspected predator priests. Delving into this and other aspects of the church cover-up, advocates say, is critical to achieving closure and healing for victims who are often troubled into adulthood. Such cases can also prompt other victims to come forward.
There are, of course, numerous sexual-abuse victims besides Doe. Yet many of the past crimes took place beyond statute limitations, preventing the victims from pursuing justice in court.
For such long-ago crimes in Pennsylvania, the only hope of justice continues to rest with a proposal to open a two-year window for civil suits against sexual predators. Civil-window legislation is before lawmakers in Harrisburg once again, along with a companion measure to remove statutes of limitations for sexual abuse, on the grounds that it can take decades for victims to acknowledge abuse.
California, Delaware, Minnesota, and, most recently, Hawaii have opened civil windows similar to the one proposed by Pennsylvania Reps. Michael P. McGeehan (D., Phila.) and Mark Rozzi (D., Berks). The companion bill was authored by state Rep. Louise Bishop (D., Phila.).