Saturday, March 5, 2011

Statute of limitations

Inquirer Editorial: Open the window

If officials of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia want to prove they really meant their apology published last week over the clergy sexual-abuse scandal, they should get behind a two-part legislative effort in Harrisburg to speed justice for victims of priests or any other predators.
What other course conceivably could be followed by church leaders who, as a group, were the subject of a blistering grand jury report on child abuse and charges of a church cover-up - the second such expose in a decade?

The raw details of the felony charges against two priests, one defrocked priest, and a parochial-school teacher included the raping and sodomizing of two altar boys. Meanwhile, the top official overseeing parish priests was charged with child endangerment for his role in assigning priests.

Yet, incredibly, there was no sign this week that the archdiocese or its lobbying arm - the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference - plans to do the right thing and support the legislative reform effort, which should cover all wrongdoers and not just priests.

Two Democratic state lawmakers from the city, Reps. Michael P. McGeehan and Louise Williams Bishop, introduced bills that would redress past wrongs, as well as better assure that no future victim of sexual abuse would be denied a day in court.

Bishop's proposal to eliminate the statute of limitations on child sex abuse would strip abusers of a key means used to avoid exposure. While young abuse victims often take years, even decades, to confront what happened to them, the time limit for filing criminal or civil cases often passes. Bishop's measure would make it possible for these victims to pursue their attackers even as older adults.

It may not be easy or even possible to prove decades-old abuse allegations in some cases. As with any proceeding, both sides would get a chance to make their case in court.

Equally important, McGeehan's proposal to open a two-year window during which any abuse victim could file a civil suit could shed even more light on the abuse scandal, and force more reforms.

This tactic proved effective in California and Delaware, where about 150 victims sued the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington. The Delaware cases resulted in a recent settlement for $77 million, but victims' advocates say the real value of these lawsuits, in addition to giving victims closure, is to delve into church records to expose details of the cover-up.

Once opposed to the civil-suit window, McGeehan's conversion came due to the appalling revelations about the accused clergy and the grand jury finding that the archdiocese had kept as many as 37 clergymen in parishes despite abuse accusations.

"We are sorry," the official church apology read. But, as scripture says: Know them by their works.

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