November 6th, Election Day 2018, is nearly upon us. Many politicians, pundits, and ordinary people are saying this could be the most crucial election in our lifetimes. It’s impossible to gauge if that will turn out to be the case, but there is a lot on the line this year, for everyone.
An issue that gets far less political attention than one would expect, considering the recent surge in media coverage, is the reform of statutes of limitations (“SOL”) for sex crimes against minors. There has been an intentional avoidance of this issue that politicians and voters have been unwilling to confront for too long. Empirical evidence tells us why current laws are outdated and work against public safety — actually endangering children today and into the future. It is an issue that can and should be addressed at the polling place this November.
In a civilized society, agreeing on the steps needed to protect children from sexual predators should not be difficult. In the US, conservative estimates are that one in four girls and one in six boys will be victims of child sexual abuse before they reach age 18. If these were the numbers for some disease or infection, we would be screaming “epidemic.”
The goal of SOL reform legislation, like the Child Victims Act (“CVA”) in New York and Senate Bill 261 in Pennsylvania (more on these below) is to address the absurdly short period that victims of child sex abuse are given to hold their abusers accountable. Practiced grooming and intimidation are the only tools needed to keep child victims silent long enough for their perpetrators to feel safe from prosecution and remain a threat to children for as long as they wish. Many predators have hundreds of victims in their lifetimes. It is the reason this problem has grown to such proportions.
Once the #MeToo movement took hold, we’ve been bombarded with reports of influential people abusing their power. Allegations of sexual misconduct in Hollywood, the media, and on Capitol Hill have provided us with many sensational headlines. But, it’s the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal that has given us an unprecedented look into institutional conspiracy and cover-ups that are decades, if not centuries, in the making. Here and around the globe, story after story of the sexual abuse of minors reveals complicity at the highest levels of the Catholic hierarchy. Today, they are still hiding sexual predators and their crimes against children in an attempt to protect the Church’s reputation.
In Chile, every bishop offered Pope Francis his resignation. In the Archdiocese of Washington D.C., both the current and former Cardinal Archbishops has resigned. In Pennsylvania, a Grand Jury investigating sexual abuse released a devastating report that describes how, over a seventy-year period, more than three hundred “predator priests” sexually abused at least one thousand children and then goes further to state that there were “likely thousands more.”
If you consider for a moment that Catholic priests account for no more than about six percent of all child sexual abuse in this country and then you do the math, the magnitude of the child sexual abuse problem worldwide can crush your spirit.
Since the groundbreaking 2002 Spotlight exposé of clergy sex abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston, many US states (as well as other nations) have reformed or altogether eliminated, their SOL laws as they apply to child sex abuse. Many are still working toward that end. However, two states, in particular, stand out for their intransigence.
These two states, New York and Pennsylvania, have much more in common than just the border they share. Both have large Catholic populations with politically active and influential bishops, lobbying hard for policies and laws they either want to see passed or need to have blocked. Thwarting SOL reform is at the top of their list, and despite being responsible for only a “small” portion of the totality of sexual abuse of minors, they can and do use the vast resources of the Catholic Church to prevent all survivors of this trauma whose SOL has expired, from having access to the courts. Unfortunately, in New York and Pennsylvania, politicians are willing to do their bidding. More on that, below.
Typically, sexual abuse survivors can’t begin the healing process until they are emotionally ready since it requires confronting their traumatic past. In New York and Pennsylvania, any legal recourse they might have had is long gone by this time because the SOL has run out.
In New York, if you were sexually abused as a minor, you are barred from bringing any criminal or civil charges against your alleged abuser once you turn twenty-three. Once you turn twenty-one, you may no longer bring a civil case against an organization that was negligent in reporting or engaged in a cover-up of abuse.
In Pennsylvania, if you were a minor at the time of the sexual abuse, you have until age thirty to bring a civil claim against your abuser or a culpable organization. A prosecutor can file criminal charges until a victim’s fiftieth birthday (or within a year of new DNA evidence). Sexual predators avoid discovery and escape accountability because victims do not usually disclose the abuse for decades after they’ve been violated. Studies show that the average age to report is 52, with the median age 48.
Sexual predators, and the organizations that protect them know this and run out the SOL clock with impunity.
The Pennsylvania Grand Jury mentioned above was able to subpoena the “Secret Archives” kept by the Church to learn that there was a virtual “playbook for concealing the truth” used by the bishops. “The cover-up made it impossible to achieve justice for the victims,” said Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro. The most effective strategy employed over and over by the bishops to keep predatory clergy concealed was to “transfer him to a new location where no one will know he is a child abuser.” Bluntly stated, it shows that the bishops were giving known sexually-perpetrating clergy new hunting grounds of vulnerable children and unsuspecting families, to protect the Church.
The ubiquitous use of this tactic, along with the rest of their playbook, was well documented in the Church’s records. In Pennsylvania, it took a Grand Jury subpoena to see those archives. However, if adults who were sexually abused as children were able to bring a civil suit against their abuser or the institution that harbored him, countless predators would be unmasked and their current and future victims protected. This is not just true for survivors of clergy abuse, but for all sexual abuse victims whose SOL has run out. This is why the Church fights tooth and nail to prevent any adults molested as children from having the ability to sue their abuser.
A key provision fought over in both the New York and Pennsylvania bills is known as the look-back window. It gives child abuse victims a limited time to revive time-barred cases where the SOL has already lapsed. It has been called “toxic for us” by New York’s Archbishop Timothy Cardinal Dolan. The lookback window is the part of SOL reform that is most feared by the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America, and their insurance companies because it can potentially open a window into past cover-ups. It remains the focus of much of the fight nationwide.
Here are the most often cited “anti-window” talking points, easily debunked with known facts:
Old cases are unfair to the accused and too hard to defend (memories, evidence, and witnesses disappear with time)
- It is the same memories, evidence, and witnesses that are available for the accuser as for the accused, but the burden of proof is only on the accuser.
- Often Church records (Secret Archives) contain detailed documentation, contemporaneous to the crimes themselves.
The number of resulting lawsuits will overwhelm the court system.
- In the eight states with one-year window provisions, a total of fewer than 3,000 people filed lawsuits
- New York State Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks told lawmakers at a budget hearing that the Child Victims Act would not be a burden on the court system: “I’m sure we would be able to accommodate any additional cases that came from that law.”
The increased number of payouts will cause devastating cuts in services, ultimately leading to parishes and dioceses having to file for bankruptcy.
- 65% of the money used for Catholic charities comes (in various forms) from the government
- Once again, in states that have enacted similar legislation, there have been few instances of this occurring.
- Religious organizations have insurance covering negligence (specifically “sexual misconduct” liability).
- The Church uses “self-serving financial maneuvers” and files for bankruptcy as a legal tool to shield church assets from settlements.
- A large portion of the Church’s wealth is in real estate, so they move their properties into separate corporations, putting them legally beyond the reach of plaintiffs.
The Catholic Church has been calling its own shots for most of its two thousand year existence. A law unto itself, the Church ruled Europe for centuries, waged its own wars and picked its own kings. At times, they were the law of the land and, at other times, had to settle for manipulating it. Today, they get what they want by lobbying politicians with campaign money or threatening to call them out by name from the pulpit for turning against the church, if they support the reforms. For the most part, at least in New York and Pennsylvania, they still get their way.
In New York, the Child Victims Act (“CVA”) was first introduced in 2006 and has been proposed again every year since. It has been passed several times on the Assembly side of the legislature by overwhelming bipartisan margins. Yet, it hasn’t been allowed a single hearing or floor debate on the Senate side in all that time.
Across the Delaware River, in Pennsylvania, a reform bill was first introduced in 2008, following the 2005 release of a Grand Jury investigation that exposed rampant child sexual abuse by clergy, along with Church cover-ups. 2011 saw the release of a second Grand Jury in Philadelphia. A third Grand Jury investigation, this time into the Diocese of Altoona/Johnstown released in 2016, also uncovered horrific abuse and complicity. The conspiracy to cover up these crimes was what led to a two-year-long Grand Jury concluded in 2018, that revealed the sexual abuse of over a thousand children by more than three hundred priests in the remaining six Pennsylvania dioceses.
Pennsylvania’s Senate President Pro Tempore, Joe Scarnati, has refused to bring the House amended Senate Bill 261 to a vote. He is the chief obstacle to passage of any SOL reform bill that includes a lookback window. He has several ties to the Church and insurance industry, both being entities that feel threatened by such a window. “Senator Scarnati was a hit man for the Catholic Church,” said Rep. Mark Rozzi, the author of the House’s amendment and clergy abuse survivor himself. “What you saw here today was another free pass from the Senate of Pennsylvania to pedophiles and the institutions that protect them.”
Despite arriving on his desk with overwhelming bipartisan support from the Pennsylvania House, Senator Scarnati’s latest proposal to amend the House version of the bill not only removes the look-back window but also only allows bringing suit against individuals, thus shielding institutions. This result is precisely what Philadelphia Archbishops Cardinal Bevilacqua (deceased), Cardinal Rigali, and current Archbishop Chaput want. All have lobbied against legislation granting victims expanded rights to sue, even calling out Catholic lawmakers as disloyal from the Sunday pulpit if they supported the window.
This alignment should be no surprise since Senator Scarnati’s ties to the Catholic Church and its insurers run deep. The lobbying firm, Long Nyquist & Associates, hired by the Catholic Conference, was co-founded by a former Scarnati colleague, Michael Long. The firm’s vice president is married to Scarnati’s chief of staff.
In New York State, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan does the Church’s bidding. For more than a dozen years he has helped keep the Child Victims Act (“CVA”) from reaching the chamber floor. This maneuvering spares Senators in his caucus from facing a public “up or down” vote on a bill that is favored by 90% of New York’s registered voters (including 70% of Republicans and Catholics), and overwhelmingly supported in the NY Assembly, just like its counterpart is in Pennsylvania.
And, like Senator Scarnati in Pennsylvania, Senator Flanagan has deep ties to the Catholic Church. His former law firm, Forchelli, Curto, Deegan, Schwartz, Mineo & Terrana, represents the Diocese of Rockville Centre, which vehemently opposes statute of limitations reform, and in 2003, was accused by a Grand Jury of protecting pedophile priests.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, when he was still Archbishop of Milwaukee back in 2007, asked the Vatican for permission to transfer a $55-million cemetery maintenance fund into a special trust, shielding it from victims of clerical sexual abuse when the Archdiocese later declared bankruptcy. Now, as the head of New York’s Catholics, he has urged Senator Flanagan to reject any legislation that gives child abuse victims a window to revive old legal cases. Dolan made a surprise trip to the state Capitol recently. He was there to lobby legislative leaders (including Senator Flanagan and Governor Cuomo), after which he said, “The look back we find to be very strangling,” because it would lead to a flurry of cases against the church.
It not lost, on those paying any attention, that the Republicans had to go to the Catholic Conference of Bishops to get their own go-to talking points almost word for word. But, as their constituents learn what’s going on in Albany and Harrisburg, the borrowed sound-bites are no longer holding up under scrutiny. Because SOL reform laws are on the cusp of getting passed into law, they have had to go back to the source to learn what was to be the new strategy.
In October of 2016, Cardinal Dolan launched his Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program (“IRCP”). This first publicly disclosed plan for handling historic sexual abuse allegations against Catholic clergy in New York was rolled out initially in the Archdiocese of New York and soon copied by many other New York dioceses. Although the IRCP is undoubtedly a welcome development for survivors whose situations preclude waiting for the law to change and courts to inch forward, it is very restricted in scope and subjective in benefits. Victims of clergy sex abuse are invited to go before a panel that determines if their claims are credible or not. If they are, they are given money in exchange for agreeing not to sue the Church. What the Church knew, when they knew it or what they did with any information they had about the accused is never shared, so the survivor is left in the dark, and the Church admits nothing.
The IRCP has been designed to protect the reputation and wealth of the Church, with no downside for it. It’s a mostly transparent attempt to remove as much “low-hanging fruit” as possible before some form of “window” legislation is enacted. With the bonus for the Church of preventing their “Secret Archives” from becoming public (as the discovery process in litigation would) it also gives the Flanagan/Scarnati crowd an additional distraction they can wave around to help them avoid passing SOL reform for yet another year.
The shift from all-out obstruction to managed compensation funds turns out to be the new strategy, and both the New York and Pennsylvania Republicans got the message. In New York, Senator Catharine Young has sponsored a bill that is built around a compensation fund and more recently in Pennsylvania, Senator Scarnati wants the Church to establish a “victim support fund.” With no disclosure of “Secret Archives”, no criminal accountability for anyone, minimal culpability for the institution that enabled and/or covered-up the crimes in Pennsylvania, and the state footing the bill in New York, both Cardinal Dolan and Bishop Charles Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia, along with the insurance industry (surprise, surprise) have endorsed this strategy.
Whether you’re listening to the Church or the legislature, what you hear screams out that these institutions do not understand what motivates survivors and advocates. Or, more likely, it may be that they don’t care. Many victims of child sexual abuse experience life as an ongoing struggle to survive, and so, some compensation could be life-saving for them. However, they feel that getting predators off the streets and out of the schools, church programs, sports teams, summer camps, and after-school youth clubs is the only way they get to see justice done and give some meaning and value to what they have suffered. It means that they’ve been seen, heard, and finally, believed.
Both state and federal law enforcement have started to step up their game and hold powerful institutions (including the Roman Catholic Church) accountable for their complicity and coverup of crimes against children. But we, the people, cannot let our elected representatives get away with aiding and abetting this anymore.
So, getting back to November 6th, what are the consequences of this election for this issue?
The Republican State Senates in New York and Pennsylvania, if left in their current configuration, will undoubtedly attempt to sell us another year of delays and distractions while keeping archaic SOLs for child sex abuse in place. In this way, the Church gets time to make as many settlements as possible — on the Church’s terms. Insurance companies get time to figure out how to not pay the claims for which they’ve been collecting premiums for years, and those campaign contributions will keep finding their way to helpful politicians for another year.
It is the institutions with money at risk who will benefit if the balance of power and status quo remains the same on November 7th. However, what about the past and future victims? How many thousand New York and Pennsylvania children will pay the price because abusers don’t get exposed for yet another year? Enablers will continue to help sexual predators stay hidden in the shadows while our most vulnerable will still be their prey. The conservative estimate is that 40,000 children in New York and nearly 26,000 children in PA will be sexually abused or assaulted over the next 12 months if nothing changes. Something has to change!
Senators Flanagan and Scarnati might believe they are not losing their seats any time soon; however, their positions of power depend on more than just winning re-election on their home turf. We can send them a strong message on election day by voting out as many of their loyal minions as possible.
In New York, this election is a referendum on the Child Victims Act. If the Republicans lose the majority, Senator Flanagan will no longer be able to keep the CVA from the Senate floor, and it will be passed.
In New York, look for these names on Election Day 2018 and pull their levers (or fill in their boxes):
- In the 5th Senate District, vote for James Gaughren (over Carl Marcellino).
- In the 7th Senate District, vote for Anna Kaplan (over Elaine Phillips).
- In the 8th Senate District, vote for John Brooks (over Jeff Pravato).
- In the 39th Senate District, vote for James Skoufis (over Tom Basile).
- In the 50th Senate District, vote for John Mannion (over Bob Antonacci).
In Pennsylvania, Republicans have held the state Senate for all but one year since 1992, so the chances of a flip to Democratic control are small. However, a message can still be sent, letting the Senate know what the people want, starting with Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, who has partnered with Senator Scarnati to keep Senate Bill 261 from getting a vote as long as it contains a window.
In Pennsylvania, deliver the message that child sex abuse survivors have a right to justice:
- In the 34th Senate District (Centre County), vote for Ezra Nanes (over Jake Corman).
- In the 30th Senate District (Blair County), vote for Emily Best (over Judy Ward)
- In the 16th Senate District (Lehigh County), vote for Mark Pinsley (over Pat Browne)
- In the 6th Senate District (Bucks County), vote for Tina Davis (over “Tommy” Tomlinson)
- In the 26th Senate District (Chester/Delaware Counties), vote for Timothy Kearney (over Thomas McGarrigle)
- In the 44th Senate District (Berks County), vote for John Rafferty (over Katie Muth)
- In the 24th Senate District (Berks County), vote for Linda Fields (over Bob Mensch)
- In the 12th Senate District (Bucks County), vote for Maria Collett (over Stewart Greenleaf, Jr.)
Editorial boards and op-ed writers overwhelmingly support New York’s Child Victims Act and Pennsylvania’s Senate Bill 261, with their lookback windows intact. They understand this is how adults who were victims of child sexual abuse can finally have access to justice, their perpetrators identified and prevented from harming more children, and the institutions that covered up and enabled the sexual abuse can be held accountable for their complicity and the damage they’ve done.
For years, survivors, advocates, and organizations have worked relentlessly to get access to justice for victims of sexual abuse and provide a safer future for children. Their tireless efforts have brought us very close to that goal. However, it’s now up to people of conscience to get this done once and for all.
However you may feel about the Roman Catholic Church or organized religion, we should all agree that it is not the Church who we want telling our elected representatives how to cast their votes. When you go to your polling place on Tuesday, November 6th (and go there you must!), there’s a straightforward formula to follow.
If your Senator, House Member or Assemblyperson sides with sexual predators over the safety and well being of children, you must VOTE THEM OUT!