Pennsylvania bishops mostly silent on prosecutor’s challenge
HARRISBURG – Reeling from a landmark grand jury report on child sexual abuse, the leadership of Pennsylvania’s Roman Catholic Church is under pressure to support a change in state law to give those victims – now adults – a temporary opportunity to file lawsuits on decades-old abuse claims. So far, it has been avoiding the topic.
It is a change in state law that bishops have successfully fought in recent years even as a handful of other states have opened such windows to let victims sue the church, raising the prospect of massive payouts.
In a report released Tuesday, a state grand jury said it found that more than 1,000 children were molested or raped by over 300 “predator priests” in six Pennsylvania dioceses since the 1940s. It said a succession of bishops and other diocesan leaders worked to shield the church from bad publicity and financial liability by shuffling abusive priests around parishes rather than reporting complaints to police, permitting hundreds of known offenders to return to ministry.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro issued a challenge to the bishops.
If they truly have changed and no longer tolerate sexual abuse, Shapiro said, they should immediately support several changes in law recommended by the grand jury, including one allowing a new two-year window to bring claims regardless how old the cases are.
In the days since the report was made public, the bishops have expressed sorrow about the horrific findings of the grand jury and said the church today deals swiftly with priests who abuse children. But they have been nearly silent about Shapiro’s request.
The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, which speaks for all the state’s dioceses, said it was “devastated and outraged by the revelations of terrible sexual abuse crimes committed in the Catholic Church.”
But, it said, “the time to discuss legislation will come later.”
The church may have a difficult path forward as it seeks to restore public trust and also ensure the financial viability of its ministries.
Erie Bishop Lawrence Persico, singled out for praise by the attorney general for his response to the investigation, told The Associated Press on Thursday that bishops are reviewing the grand jury’s recommendations, which also include wiping out time limits for prosecutors to pursue criminal charges in older child sex abuse cases.
Persico acknowledged there is concern about how lawsuits would affect church finances, “but there’s also a concern for the victims, that they get justice.”
“It’s a two-edged sword isn’t it? You have to be concerned about the victim and the church’s ministries,” said Persico, the only bishop who agreed to testify in person to the grand jury.
Dioceses across the country have paid more than $3 billion in settlements with victims since 1950, according to the bishops’ own studies and news reports. Liability insurance covered some of the payouts, but many dioceses have had to sell off major properties to help cover the costs and about a dozen of the 197 U.S. dioceses have sought bankruptcy protection in the face of abuse claims.
Childhood victims rarely report the abuse until years later, and few, if any, of the victims cited in the grand jury report can sue today because they’ve exceeded time limits under Pennsylvania law.
Timothy Hale, a California lawyer who represents child sex abuse victims and helped successfully sue the Los Angeles Archdiocese and the San Diego Diocese for a combined $858 million, dismissed concerns about dioceses being bankrupted.
Seeking bankruptcy protection is a strategic move dioceses make to limit their financial exposure, and the vast majority of dioceses have insurance coverage and extensive financial assets that the public knows nothing about, Hale said.
In any case, the greatest value of civil lawsuits is forcing dioceses to improve how they protect children and uncovering more abusers, Hale said.
Paula Kane, a professor of religious studies and the O’Brien Chair of Catholic Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, said the church has long made secret payments – to victims and abusive priests – to hush up the scandal.
If it needs to, the church can take up collections for its ministries, Kane said.
Legal scholars disagree over whether creating a two-year window to sue in Pennsylvania would even be constitutional.
Currently, a 2002 Pennsylvania law gives victims of childhood sexual abuse until they turn 30 to sue. Before that, victims had to file suit within two years of an alleged incident.
The Pennsylvania House approved a two-year window in 2016 but the measure was blocked in the Senate. The Republican House majority leader, Dave Reed, said Thursday that he plans to try again as early as next month.
“If not now, then what would force people to deal with this issue head on,” Reed said. “I don’t think there is one, if this is not it.”