Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Statute of limitations

Changes in Pennsylvania law open door to charges of sex abuse by Philadelphia clergy
February 28, 2011|By David O'Reilly, Inquirer Staff Writer

Investigating clergy sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia was an exercise in frustration for the 2005 grand jury.

It identified 63 current and former priests credibly accused of molesting minors and lambasted the hierarchy for an "immoral cover-up" of the alleged crimes.

Yet no one was indicted.

The reason: Pennsylvania's statute of limitations had expired on assaults dating back to the 1960s, '70s, and '80s. "We surely would have charged them," the hamstrung panel wrote, "if we could have."

Since then, laws have changed - enough to crack open the church door to five criminal indictments.

Earlier this month, following a new grand jury's recommendations, the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office charged two priests, a defrocked priest, and a parochial-school teacher with raping and sodomizing two altar boys in the 1990s.

Even more surprising was the indictment of Msgr. William Lynn. Once Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua's secretary for clergy, he was charged with two felony counts of child endangerment for allegedly putting known abusive priests into contact with minors. Lynn had been excoriated at length in the 2005 grand jury report for similar actions, but was not charged.

The five, all out on bail, face a preliminary hearing Thursday in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court.

What is different this time around?

For one, the state's criminal statute of limitations has been extended for sexual assaults on children. In the process, the long-ago cases of the two altar boys remained eligible for prosecution.

State lawmakers four years ago expanded the child-endangerment law to apply to employers and supervisors whose underlings abused minors in their care. The 2005 grand jurors had complained they could not use the law to indict church leaders because it seemingly pertained only to direct caretakers of children, such as parents, teachers, and day-care workers. Citing the new language in the endangerment law, prosecutors charged Lynn. His lawyers say that interpretation won't hold up in court.

Archdiocesan policy now calls for assault accusations against its personnel to be reported to the District Attorney's Office. The 2011 grand jury investigation "began as a result of reports received from the archdiocese," said District Attorney Seth Williams, who commended the action.

All told, Williams has been able to proceed with felony charges in ways that his predecessor, Lynne M. Abraham, could not in 2005.

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