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Following a grand jury report on child abuse in six Pennsylvania Catholic dioceses, Roman Catholic officials have joined with legislators to back the idea of creating a victims’ compensation fund to help those who are barred from filing sexual abuse lawsuits. According to the grand jury’s report, because of the church’s alleged cover-up of the crimes “almost every instance of abuse we found is too old to be prosecuted.”

If the fund goes ahead, victims could be compensated even though they are currently unable to sue. But some say that is simply not enough, and that Legislature should instead pass a law that would open a limited window allowing civil cases to be heard in court.

Will Pennsylvania Open a Window for Child Sex Abuse Lawsuits?

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro has urged the Legislature to waive the statute of limitations for civil claims in the case of child abuse victims. There is a law under consideration that would create a window for these victims that has already been passed in the Senate and is due for a vote in the House this fall. But Pennsylvania has tried to pass similar laws in the past and failed.

If victims were allowed to file sexual abuse lawsuits against the church, the potential compensation could be larger than those typically paid via compensation funds. Victims’ attorneys could potentially obtain documents that would support their claims, and could also use testimony from church leaders.

Compensation funds also typically have many rules about who is eligible, who can participate, and what the payments will be, depending on various factors. These rules are largely out of the victims’ control, whereas in a lawsuit the victim has a better opportunity to provide evidence supporting his or her claims.

Some believe that the best approach would be to establish the compensation fund and open the window for sexual abuse lawsuits. That way, all victims would have a choice in how they wanted to approach seeking justice and compensation.

Is the Compensation Fund Simply Another Cover-Up?

Other states have already passed laws allowing victims of church child abuse to file lawsuits. California passed such a law back in 2003, which lifted the statute of limitations for one year, allowing victims to sue institutions that employed and protected alleged abusers. In 2013, the Catholic archdiocese in Los Angeles agreed to a $600 settlement in clergy sex abuse cases, resolving over 500 clergy abuse cases at an average of $1.2 to $1.3 million per person.

Other states, including Connecticut and Delaware, have also extended their statutes of limitation for child sex abuse. These windows have allowed victims to gain higher payouts from other dioceses. According to the Post-Gazette, Catholic officials are not in favor of these extensions “because they punish mainly the parishioners, students, and others in Catholic institutions.

Pennsylvania Representative Mark Rozzi (D-Berks), on the other hand, believes that allowing a compensation fund as an alternative to allowing victims to sue is “one of the final cover-ups,” since avoiding lawsuits would allow the church to avoid the discovery process, which could reveal more evidence of abuse and complicity.

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