In this heavily Catholic state, there’s little political appetite to take on the Church. So it didn’t shock anyone that attempts last year by Pennsylvania sexual abuse victims to pass a law allowing them to sue for long-ago abuse (the civil statute of limitations currently expires when the victim turns 30) failed. The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm for the state’s 10 dioceses, painted the law as anti-Catholic. The issue was dead.
Well, not quite. Seems activists in California did succeed in getting such a law passed there, and this summer it paid off: The Archdiocese of Los Angeles shelled out the largest settlement to date for clergy abuse, a staggering $660 million. In July, Delaware opened up its statute of limitations, giving potential plaintiffs a two-year window during which they can sue for past abuse.
Buoyed, a loose alliance that includes the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office and advocacy groups like the Bryn Mawr-based Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse are now joining forces to bring the fight back to Harrisburg. “I think there is more awareness on why this is needed,” says assistant Philadelphia deputy D.A. Charles Gallagher.
That doesn’t mean it’s a slam-dunk. “From a policy standpoint, we need to feel out our constituents on this,” John Ryan, executive director of the Pennsylvania House Judiciary Committee’s Democratic caucus, says with typical buying-time political caution. “Where do you draw the line?”
While the law would allow for prosecuting old child molestation cases across the board, there’s no doubt the Church — and its deep pockets — is target numero uno. The faithful are keeping their clerical collars and upper lips stiff, but there’s a rising sense of panic within the archdiocese, which has already removed or shuffled dozens of priests in the wake of pedophilia scandals. The worry now is that the new law, and the tsunami of lawsuits sure to follow, would send already-precarious finances right to … hell.
“Every part of the archdiocese would be touched by it,” admits spokeswoman Donna Farrell. Which is a polite way of saying: A lot of people need to start praying.