Catholic Church in Pa. Fights Change to Allow New Sex Abuse Suits

December 6, 2005

Roman Catholic Church officials in Pennsylvania say a proposal that would allow sexual-abuse victims from decades ago to file lawsuits could lead to financial ruin for dioceses across the state.

Some Harrisburg lawmakers want the state to create a one-year “window” to allow victims to file lawsuits, regardless of how long ago the abuse happened. The strict statute of limitations for sexual abuse cases in Pennsylvania has kept virtually all such cases out of the courts.

After being questioned by The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia on Friday released a statement supporting some proposed reforms and explaining why it was opposed to permitting old allegations to enter the courts.

It warned that the change would likely expose the church and other institutions to huge damages, causing an “incalculable financial impact … felt in every corner of Pennsylvania.”

Before a bill has even been filed, some Harrisburg politicians are quietly seeking a deal that would leave the current law untouched but pressure the state’s Catholic dioceses to put up millions of dollars for a victim-compensation fund.

Archdiocesan spokeswoman Donna Farrell said it would be “premature” to comment on a victims’ fund.

The debate in Harrisburg was ignited by a scathing report on clergy sexual abuse issued by the Philadelphia district attorney’s office in September that documented how two cardinals and top aides hid decades of abuse in the Philadelphia Archdiocese.

Because of the Pennsylvania statute of limitations, victims have had almost no success in suing the church.

That idea for a one-year “window” is modeled on one that California legislators opened in 2003, leading to 800 lawsuits being filed.

Although the total California price tag is still unknown, the Orange County Diocese last year agreed to pay $100 million to 87 plaintiffs.

The dioceses of Tucson, Ariz.; Portland, Ore.; and Spokane, Wash., filed for bankruptcy protection after being hit by a wave of lawsuits.

So far, the Philadelphia Archdiocese has paid out only $200,000 to settle sex-abuse cases.

But the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, an influential lobbying force in Harrisburg, has been warning lawmakers that changing the statute could create a flood of lawsuits.

The church endorses other recommended reforms under consideration by lawmakers. They include measures to remove the statute of limitations on criminal charges for sexual assault, and to permit authorities to file criminal charges against supervisors who do nothing about employees who abuse children.

Marci Hamilton, a professor at the Cardozo School of Law in New York and an expert on clergy abuse, said the church in Pennsylvania should disclose its finances if it wants to argue that paying victims would damage church services.

The archdiocese also said in its statement that it would be “fundamentally unfair” to revive allegations from decades ago. Some abusive priests identified in the report are dead.

“As time passes, discovering the truth becomes harder and sometimes even impossible,” the church said.

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