KEYSTONE CROSSROADS – Pennsylvania’s recent grand jury report on the sexual abuse of children in Catholic dioceses throughout state has renewed calls to change statute of limitation laws.
Advocates and those sexually abused as children held a press conference Tuesday in Southeastern Pennsylvania urging lawmakers to provide a two-year window for past victims to file civil charges retroactively.
Families of child sex abuse survivors held signs demanding, “Protect the children, not the priests” and “Prosecute the priests, don’t bury their victims,” while advocates and survivors told personal stories of abuse.
Former gymnast Sarah Klein, a Delaware County resident, is the first known victim of Larry Nassar, the serial pedophile and former Olympic team doctor at Michigan State University.
“I was part of the army of survivors that successfully persuaded the Michigan legislature to pass laws opening a window of opportunity for all victims of child sexual assault to pursue justice regardless of age,” Klein said.
Michigan changed its laws to allow a 90-day window for Nassar’s victims to file civil claims. It also lengthened its civil statute of limitations for child sexual assault and eliminated time constraints for criminal charges.
Klein, now a lawyer and mother, said she was abused several times a week by Nassar from the time she was 8 until she was 25.
“The purpose of statute of limitations is to close the courts to unwanted lawsuits,” she said, in calling for lawmakers to provide an appropriate opportunity for sexual assault survivors to bring their claims.
Marci Hamilton, CEO of CHILD USA, said the recent grand jury report on abuse in the Catholic Church illustrates why the law should change.
“Over 1,000 victims and over 300 priests, and virtually none of [the children] had access to justice. That there is no justice for that many victims is intolerable,” she said. “This is an epidemic of child sex abuse.”
CHILD USA and the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP, want Pennsylvania lawmakers to follow the lead of Michigan, Delaware and several other states in providing those who were sexually abused a children their day in court.
A report by CHILD USA ranked states on civil and criminal reforms in cases of child sexual assault. Delaware, which has eliminated criminal and civil statutes of limitations, ranks first.
Pennsylvania, which maintains a cutoff of age 50 to bring criminal complaints and 30 to file civil suits, ranks at the bottom.
‘Apologetic statements are worthless’
Arthur Baselice Jr.’s son was sexually abused by a priest and later died of a drug overdose.
“There is no statute of limitations on our grief, misery and pain,” he said, choking up.
He said it’s the duty of state lawmakers duty to provide a two-year window and remove the statute of limitations to stop “providing an escape route for these enablers and abusers.”
Baselice Jr. is skeptical of the church’s apologies.
“The apologetic statements filled with regret and assurances of a better tomorrow are worthless,” he said. “They’re rendered irrelevant and insulting by the harsh reality of the brutal tactics of the bishops and the clergy. The church has victimized itself by enabling abuse and have eroded their credibility as a moral authority.”
U.S. Hall of Fame gymnast Jessica Howard said the problem is systemic.
“This, again, is not just about a few bad players,” she said. “It’s not just about Larry Nassar. That’s what USA Gymnastics tried to say. It’s not just about a few priests, which is what the Catholic Church is trying to say. It’s not just about a few people. This is happening to hundreds, if not thousands, of children.”
Howard called it “industrialized grooming.”
“The playbook being used by all of these organizations is identical,” she said. “They wield their power and status to groom young people who look to them as a figure of absolute authority that must be obeyed, but also make the children feel special, and they’re kind. So these are not the people you would expect.”
The news conference was held outside the office of State Sen. Daylin Leach, a Montgomery County Democrat.
He met with the group and agrees with eliminating the statute, but he said he is wary of allowing retroactive civil claims because of its “potential for injustice.”
“I have been struggling … with the concept of reviving old lawsuits because … changing the rules of procedure might be something that spreads to other areas and be very difficult to contain,” said Leach. “We need rules even in tough situations. However, I think we made a lot of progress today on moving toward a position that we can all agree on.”
Leach said he’d like to see a bill passed by November. Leaders in the legislature have also signaled support for eliminating the criminal statute of limitations for child sex abuse.
“I think there will be a strong consensus on much of the legislation,” he said. “I can’t speak for other legislators, but I know that I want to try to come up with a solution that can pass the Senate, and we can all live with that brings justice to the people who need it.”
Groups such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference have opposed retroactive lawsuits, worrying that they would hurt the church financially and penalize current parishioners for the sins of past clergy.
Hamilton urged legislators to heed needs of survivors — not the church or its leaders.
“You don’t ask an arsonist how to prevent forest fires. The bishops created the conditions for abuse,” she said. “We’re asking lawmakers to stop talking to people who know how to sexually abuse children and start protecting children. That’s why we’re here.”