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Attorney General John Shapiro recently released the findings of a statewide investigative grand jury on child sex abuse in Pennsylvania Catholic churches. After discovering over 300 “predator priests” operating in Pennsylvania dioceses over the past several decades, and abusing over 1,000 children, the jury recommended reforming Pennsylvania’s current statute of limitations on child sexual abuse.

Grand Jury Finds Evidence of Church Cover-Up

According to the jury report, the church covered up the crimes with a key purpose: to outrun the statute of limitations, so that law enforcement could not prosecute the predators. Pennsylvania prohibits victims from filing civil claims related to childhood abuse after the age of 30, and from filing criminal claims after the age of 50.

“As a consequence of the cover up,” the jury wrote, “almost every instance of abuse we found is too old to be prosecuted.”

Only two of the hundreds of predator priests identified have been charged. Father John Sweeney in Greensburg was charged with sexually abusing a seven-year old boy. He pled guilty in August and is awaiting sentencing. And Father David Poulson in Erie was charged with sexually assaulting a boy for eight years, starting when the child was eight years old.

Will Pennsylvania Change Its Statute of Limitations?

Among the grand jury’s recommendations was that Pennsylvania eliminate the criminal statue of limitations entirely for sexually abusing children. They also suggested that the state create a “civil window” so that older victims can sue for damages.

There is current legislation in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives that would waive the statute of limitations for civil claims for a short time, creating a window for victims to sue. It’s already passed in the Senate and is scheduled to come up for a vote in the fall. Other states have passed similar laws, giving plaintiffs with previously expired claims additional time to file lawsuits.

Pennsylvania has tried to pass such a law twice since 2005, but hasn’t succeeded. This latest report from the grand jury is turning up the pressure.

Increase Call for Legislation Changes

Two child sexual abuse lawsuits have been filed in Pennsylvania recently that could also potentially influence the statute of limitations. One was filed on behalf of a plaintiff claiming to have been abused in the 1970s and 1980s by a priest in Pittsburgh. The second was filed on behalf of a woman who claims she was abused by a priest in Altoona-Johnstown.

Pennsylvania law allows for exceptions to the statute of limitations if it can be proven that evidence was fraudulently concealed. Should these lawsuits manage to show that, it could lead to changes at the Supreme Court level.

Pennsylvania state representative Mark Rozzi, himself a victim of a predator priest, has also renewed his call for eliminating the statute of limitations and for allowing new civil and criminal cases against abusers. “People are finally outraged to the point that they can’t tolerate it anymore,” he told NBC News. “My fellow legislators get that it’s their turn to do the right thing now and pass a window. We’ve all had enough.”

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