Pennsylvania Catholic Church Sex Abuse Scandal Could Result in Changed Reporting Laws

According to news reports, a recent grand jury report addressed rampant abuse in the Altoona-Johnstown-Pennsylvania Diocese of the Catholic Church. The community is still in shock as it considers the ramifications of the abuse that occurred over the years. According to the report, two Roman Catholic bishops who led the Pennsylvania diocese assisted in the cover up of the sexual abuse of hundreds of children by more than 50 priests and other religious leaders during a 40-year period.

According to news reports, the grand jury report included previously concealed church documents with lists of secret payouts made to the victims, as well as information about the way in which priests and other church authorities were shuffled around, as well as blatant disregard for “safety plans” put in place to prevent certain church leaders from having one-on-one contact with children.

The report also alleged several church authorities knew decades ago what was going on, as did some civic officials and senior figures in the criminal justice system. Some of the details related to the conspiracy were revealed in a high-profile civil lawsuit in the early 1990s, filed against Father Francis Luddy, a priest who served in the dioceses. Following the lawsuit, many additional victims came forward, prompting the grand jury investigation.

Community Turns a Blind Eye to Abuse

For years, children in the Altoona-Johnstown community were ignored when disclosing sexual abuse to parents and other authorities. One victim reported he was punished when he accused a monsignor with a reputation for being friendly.

Though it might seem as if the abuse issues are in the past and the church can now focus on moving forward, many officials still within the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese were accused in the grand jury report of having covered up reports of abuse.

According to the Guardian newspaper, one current Altoona Monsignor failed to notify law enforcement in 2001 and 2002 about two priests who admitted past abuse to him. He stated to the paper there is “no excuse” for child abuse, and explained some priests within the community were dismissed and others were allowed to retire “because if we dismissed them, they would not have any income, and that would not be just.” When asked if the priests who molested children should be in prison, he responded pedophilia has always been a problem and questioned what good prison would do.

Not all church officials share the Monsignor’s views. At a recent mass in Altoona-Johnstown, Father Dennis Kurdziel felt “stunned and sickened” by the revelations in the grand jury report and regretted the suspicion it causes in the church, whether accurate or not. Others have apologized for the events that occurred over the last 50 years.

Need for Significant Change within the Diocese

According to news reports, for many parishioners, acknowledgement and apologies are not enough. They want to see church leaders responding differently to abuse allegations.

It took years for many victims to come forward, many of whom did not do so until a settlement between the church and victims was made public. Unfortunately, because of present laws regarding the statute of limitations for sexual abuse, there may be no justice for some victims, as the statute of limitations has run out and/or the perpetrators are dead. Tragically, this is an all too common circumstance around the nation where restrictive statutes of limitations prevent victims of sexual abuse from receiving real justice and accountability.

According to news reports, at least one priest supports abolishing the statute of limitations, stating, “We should not hide behind the statute of limitations. If it could somehow help and protect people, then we should do it. I have a responsibility as a priest. I don’t like to think of it as power.”

Pennsylvania Statute of Limitation Changes Could Be Coming

Now, lawmakers are taking action, supporting legislation that would abolish the statute of limitations in civil cases involving child abuse. There are also plans to introduce a bill to create a two-year window that would allow victims to sue the church for sexual abuse. One lawmaker called for an investigation into every diocese in Pennsylvania.

According to a recent report in the Harrisburg Post-Gazette, Pennsylvania State Attorney General Kathleen Kane and other state leaders are calling for a change in child abuse statute of limitations. In 2002 and 2006, state laws were changed to allow victims to file both criminal and civil charges later in their adult life. Now, the Attorney General wants an end to all reporting limitations in both civil and criminal cases. Her comments came in a press conference addressing the three Franciscan Church Leaders that permitted sexual abuse happen to more than 80 kids at Bishop McCort High School in Johnstown.

The change would definitely benefit victims whose emotional issues understandably make it very difficult to talk about their experiences, let alone report them to the authorities. Sometimes it is later-in-life circumstances that prompt a person to come forward and report there abuse, and there is no predicting what those circumstances might be or when they might occur. Sometimes, victims are not comfortable reporting their own abuse until they hear the story of another victim or they fear a loved one could be vulnerable. By removing limits for reporting, a victim is free to move at his or her own pace.

The efforts to end laws limiting the time a victim has to report has bi-partisan support, but is getting pushback from groups like the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference.