Editorial | Senate’s turn to pass abuse statute of limitations bill

“The Altoona-Johnstown diocese scandal must do what the Jerry Sandusky tragedy did not – expand the rights of child sexual abuse victims, now and into the future.”

6/12/16 | The Tribune Democrat | Johnstown, PA

The pope’s approval of procedures for ousting bishops who fail to take steps to protect children from abusive priests is a delayed reaction to a crisis – but a step we welcome nevertheless.

Now the pope’s archbishops and the state Senate should join Francis in taking the fate of children more seriously.

A bill that would eliminate the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse has passed the state House and awaits a vote in the Senate. The bill would treat future child sexual abuse cases like murder cases – that there is no deadline for when criminal charges may be filed.

The bill would also extend the deadline for filing civil action from age 30 to age 50 for victims who could have been violated decades before.

The legislation was sparked by outrage over the report in February that said more than 50 priests and religious leaders in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown had sexually abused hundreds of children over many years – and that two bishops, the late James Hogan and the retired Joseph Adamec – had moved the offenders from parish to parish and even paid off families to keep the abuse quiet.

The pope’s new procedures would not retroactively affect retired bishops such as Adamec, but would set a new plan for handling cases in the future.

Could the pontiff have gone further? Sure, and we support the call from victims advocates who believe bishops found to have covered up or contributed to abuse should lose all rights as clergy.

Judy Jones, midwest associate director for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, called for the Vatican to “defrock any bishop who covers up sex crimes,” to entice the church to punish bishops in those circumstances by taking away their “entitlements” and “prestige.”

The state attorney general’s office has said the Altoona-Johnstown case is open and ongoing, that new reports could lead to additional charges. But to date, the only charges filed involved three members of the Franciscan order that oversaw appointments for Brother Stephen Baker, who abused teens for years at Bishop McCort in Johnstown.

While the legal process continues, the legislative side must follow – with the Senate passing the statute of limitations extensions.

Strong opposition has come from the Church. Last weekend, the Archbishop of Philadelphia, the Most Rev. Charles J. Chaput, sent letters to Catholics in that region urging them to contact lawmakers and oppose House Bill 1947.

Chaput wrote that the bill “poses serious dangers for all of our local parishes and for the ministries, charities and schools of our archdiocesan church.

“Over the past decade the church has worked very hard to support survivors in their healing, to protect our children and to root this crime out of church life,” Chaput wrote, calling the bill “a clear attack on the church, her parishes and her people” because he said the proposal treats private institutions more harshly than public entities.

His biggest concern is the retroactive nature of the statute change, which could mean lawsuits over cases decades old. Chaput urged parishioners to oppose the bill, “and any effort to impose civil statute retroactivity.”

Sadly, the victims of abusive priests cannot employ retroactivity to go back in time and wash away the horrific experience of violation.

Such crimes cause damage that lasts a lifetime, and any actions – in the courts or in legislative halls – must be fair to the victims of sexual abuse, regardless of how long ago that abuse took place.

The Altoona-Johnstown diocese scandal must do what the Jerry Sandusky tragedy did not – expand the rights of child sexual abuse victims, now and into the future.

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