Legislators Should Find Courage in Spotlight’s Success and Motivation in Yet Another Grand Jury Report, and Finally Do SOL Reform Right

By Marci A. Hamilton (Justia.com)
March 3, 2016

The Attorney General of Pennsylvania has issued yet another grand jury report on orchestrated sex abuse and adults not paying attention. First, there was the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office investigating the Philadelphia Archdiocese. Three times. Then there was the Attorney General’s Penn State-Sandusky grand jury report. Now there is the AG’s Report on abuse in the Altoona-Johnstown Catholic Diocese. (And many are waiting for the Bucks County grand jury report on long-term abuse in the Solebury School.) It is crystal clear now that the plague of child sex abuse and cover up spans the state (and the country). The only question left to ask in Pennsylvania is: who is investigating the Pittsburgh and Harrisburg dioceses?

The Altoona Report introduces new perpetrators and, tragically, many victims to our collective consciousness, but the paradigm is the same: heartless and callous adults trivialize and ignore unmistakable evidence of deep child suffering. Honestly, if you want to understand it at a deep level, see the Oscar Best Picture winner: Spotlight.

True, the motion picture is about Boston, but the pattern is always the same. First, arrogant, powerful adults fail to protect children. Second, child victims (those who survive the all-too-strong temptation of suicide) struggle as adults. Third, their families suffer when they learn about it. Fourth, it’s not over, which Spotlight brilliantly captures with a running list of dioceses worldwide with the “Boston problem.” It leaves audiences stunned and silent. I do not remember a motion picture that triggers the same level of quiet shock since the Deer Hunter.
“Highlights” from the Altoona-Johnstown Grand Jury Report

While the patterns are familiar, there are a few “highlights” from the Altoona-Johnstown Report that are well worth sharing.

First, a remarkable businessman and parishioner, George Foster, first approached Bishop Joseph Adamec in June 2002 with the information he had gleaned from being a “novice detective,” as the Report names him: “admissions of the priests, the letters of the victims, and accused priests that were still in ministry.” He then waited. To quote the Report: “Nothing changed.” But, of course, why would anything change? While this information was new to Foster, it was old news to Adamec, who had been covering up for these very same priests for years.

Second, in one of the more brazenly cold-hearted approaches even for those of us who thought we had seen everything, Adamec reduced the “problem” to a chart, which shows what the Diocese would pay for a certain level of abuse if the victim agreed to complete confidentiality.

LEVEL OF ABUSE    RANGE OF PAYMENT
I. Above clothing, genital fondling    $10,000-$25,000
II. Fondling under clothes; masturbation $15,000-$40,000
III. Oral sex $25,000-$75,000
IV. Sodomy; Intercourse $50,000-$175,000

Then there was a footnote: “Factors to consider for valuation within a range,” including “number of occurrences; duration of abuse over time; age of victim; use of alcohol or drugs; apparent effect of abuse on victims (psychosis); and other aggravating circumstances.”

Really.

The Report ends unfortunately with no criminal charges against the Archdiocese or its bishops despite their long-term cover up and callous disregard amounting in my mind to child endangerment, under the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s recent definition in the Msgr. Lynn case. The Report does not even spend time considering what is wrong with the law in the thorough way that the 2005 Philadelphia Grand Jury Report did. But, to its credit, it does endorse eliminating the criminal statute of limitations (“SOLs”) and creating a window that would permit victims with expired SOLs to file civil lawsuits.

Now Is the Time for SOL Reform

One would think that with so many reports by law enforcement proving not just the existence of widespread child sex abuse in many environs, but also the failed SOLs that block justice 99 percent of the time, a fire of good intentions might be lit under legislators in Harrisburg. It is time (well, long past time) for them to both revive expired civil SOLs and to eliminate the criminal SOLs for child sex abuse.

As has happened in every other state to eliminate the criminal SOL and to revive expired civil SOLs, Pennsylvania’s legislators could be the heroes who shine a spotlight on the hidden predators. And in the dark corners where their aiders and abettors lurk.

State after state has considered SOL reform and made significant progress. In not one instance has the sky fallen. Pennsylvania is decidedly mediocre on this score, with an age-50 criminal SOL (only as of 2006) and an age-30 civil SOL. With the median age for victims coming forward at approximately age 42, Pennsylvania’s age restrictions have resulted in a pathetically small number of criminal prosecutions and civil suits. Put differently, in comparison to other states, Pennsylvania is now long on information but short on justice. That is not a winning combination.

And now is the time. Why? In a word: Spotlight. With notable exceptions like Rep. Mark Rozzi, many Pennsylvania lawmakers hid under their desks following the other reports and scandals in fear of offending Catholic voters or Penn State alums. They counted their votes as carefully as the bishops have been counting the perpetrators, victims, and dollars in their charts. But the huge success of this motion picture that lays out the ugliness of the cover up, Hollywood’s embrace of its anti-clerical and pro-victim themes, and the fact that all those involved have become remarkably strong advocates for survivors as a result should prove to legislators that SOL Reform for child sex abuse victims is both a righteous and popular cause.

That adds up to votes. But, more importantly, meaningful SOL reform would lead to the clear conscience that comes from doing the right thing. It’s time for Pennsylvania (and a lot of other states like New York and New Jersey) to shift the balance of power from the predators to the children. It really is an either-or choice.

Marci A. Hamilton is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University, and the author of God vs. the Gavel: The Perils of Extreme Religious Liberty and Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children. She also runs two active websites covering her areas of expertise, the Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, www.RFRAperils.com, and statutes of limitations for child sex abuse, www.sol-reform.com. Professor Hamilton blogs at Hamilton and Griffin on Rights. Her email address is This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .