EDITORIAL: Widen door of justice for victims of predator priests

The York Dispatch

More than 1,000 victims.

Some 60 years of abuse.

An estimated 300 assailants.

Even decades into the ongoing shame that is the Roman Catholic Church’s global failure to acknowledge, address and avert the problem of sexually abusive priests, the Pennsylvania grand jury report released last week was a gut punch.

The 1,356-page report, the result of some two years of investigation, details a network of alleged abuse throughout six Pennsylvania dioceses — including the one encompassing York County.

Children were not only sexually abused but groomed for further abuse, the report maintains. And the abusers themselves were shielded, often for decades, to protect the Church.

“The main thing was not to help children, but to avoid scandal,” the report says. "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.”

It is a horrific, repugnant episode. And for many of the victims, it is not yet over. Hundreds of children, having been violated by a system they were encouraged to turn to for sanctuary, by men they were instructed to trust, have grown up with the never-healing emotional wounds of unspeakable abuse.

More:Report cites cases of 2 York-area priests as examples of 'wholesale institutional failure'

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More:Catholics ponder withholding donations to church

FILE - In this Sunday, Aug. 19, 2018 file photo, Pope Francis prays for the victims of the Kerala floods during the Angelus noon prayer in St.Peter's Square, at the Vatican. Pope Francis has issued a letter to Catholics around the world condemning the "crime" of priestly sexual abuse and cover-up and demanding accountability, in response to new revelations in the United States of decades of misconduct by the Catholic Church. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, File)

Some of those victims are no doubt our friends and neighbors. Church officials have confirmed that more than two dozen of the 70-some accused clergymen in the Diocese of Harrisburg were assigned to churches in York County.

Many are reaching out for help in the wake of the report. Pennsylvania’s hotline for clergy sexual abuse — and reflect for a moment how sad it is that such a tool exists — “lit up” after the report was released, according to state Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

He added on Twitter that survivors are “now surfacing to tell their stories and seek justice.”

That latter part might be difficult, at last under current laws.

That’s why it is crucial that the Pennsylvania Legislature move forward this fall with measures that would not only extend the current statute of limitations for criminal charges and civil lawsuits but provide a window that would allow actions to be brought by any victim, regardless of how far back alleged abuse took place.

Pennsylvania state law allows child victims of sexual crimes to pursue criminal charges against their abusers until age 50, and to file civil lawsuits until age 30. A bill pending in the House would remove the time limit for prosecutions and increase the lawsuit ceiling to age 50. 

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But with allegations in the grand jury report stretching back to the 1940s, even these expansions would leave the door to justice closed to too many victims.

That’s why a temporary window allowing all childhood sexual abuse victims to pursue redress, as has been championed by state Rep. Mark Rozzi, himself a survivor of childhood abuse at the hands of a priest, is essential.

Passing these laws would be a concrete response not only to the horrors outlined in the grand jury report but to the subsequent response by the Vatican itself, which declared, “Those acts were betrayals of trust that robbed survivors of their dignity and their faith. … There should be accountability for both abusers and those who permitted abuse to occur.”

For the predator priests and their protectors to face accountability, for the victims to truly heal, for the church itself to regain the trust of its faithful, state lawmakers must follow Rozzi’s lead. House and Senate members must lose no time in passing legislation that would swing open the door of justice to all victims of this unspeakable chapter of institutional abuse.