BOSTON (Reuters) - The death on Wednesday of Roman Catholic Cardinal Bernard Law, who covered up the church’s child sex abuse scandal for decades, prompted U.S. activists to reflect on how far their efforts have come to make sure abusers can be prosecuted and how many hurdles remain.
Thousands of people worldwide came forward to say they were child victims of priest abuse after the scandal broke in 2002. But many in the United States found that state laws protected their attackers from criminal prosecution or even civil lawsuits for crimes that were years or decades old.
That sparked a drive by advocates to reform statutes of limitations, reflecting research showing that many people sexually abused as children do not report the fact until well into adulthood. That effort has gained support from the #MeToo movement this year as millions of women have shared their stories of being sexually harassed or assaulted.
“Powerful institutions have protected abusers and kept them in place just as Cardinal Law did,” New York state Senator Brad Hoylman, author of a bill that would eliminate the statue of limitations on reporting new child sex abuse and allow a one-year period to file civil suits over older allegations.
“It’s taken us a long time to move on these issues but I think we’re at a point of culmination where change could occur next year.”
U.S. statutes of limitations for criminal and civil cases vary widely by state, making for a patchwork system determining victims’ rights to seek redress in the courts.
This year eight states passed laws giving child sex abuse victims more time to legally confront their abusers, according to Child USA. Bills were introduced but not passed in four: New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Washington state.
“What the #MeToo movement shows is the public is now willing to assign blame. They are naming names and part of that is naming the legislators who are not willing to pass these laws,” said Marci Hamilton, a University of Pennsylvania professor of law and religion and chief executive of Child USA, an advocacy group which backs the measures.
As many as 100,000 U.S. children may have been victims of clerical sex abuse, insurance experts said in a paper presented at a Vatican conference in 2012. More than 6,700 members of the Catholic clergy were accused of sexual assault, according to BishopAccountability.org, a private group that tracks the allegations.
The scandal, which erupted in Boston but rippled around the globe as abuse was found in many countries, cost the church billions of dollars in settlements and undercut its moral authority.
Two states where statute of limitation reform bills have long stalled are New York and Pennsylvania, where advocates of the measures contend church officials have used their political clout to stall the measures.
Both states’ legislatures are now entertaining competing bills. One version in each would extend the statute of limitations for reporting new sex crimes, while the other would go further by allowing people to file civil lawsuits over long ago-abuse, so-called retroactive change. The Supreme Court has ruled that states cannot amend laws to allow the prosecution of old crimes on which the statute of limitations has already expired.
But not everyone has embraced tougher standards.
Church officials in each state said they support the bills that would extend the statute of limitations on new crimes but reject the versions allowing fresh civil lawsuits on past assaults.
“To look back retroactively, 40, 50, 60 years is really unfair. The people, today’s church, the people who give money today and the people in leadership are not the ones who had anything to do with crimes committed in the past,” said Dennis Poust, a spokesman for the New York State Catholic Conference, which represents the church’s political interests.
Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, said the church’s position would let it continue to cover up abuse by blocking the exposure that would come with new lawsuits.
“They are protecting the princes of the church who oversaw this conduct, just like Cardinal Law did,” Barrett Doyle said.
Child USA rates New York’s current statute of limitations, which lets victims of child sexual assault bring lawsuits only until they turn 23 years old, as one of the four least victim-friendly in the country. The other three are Alabama, Michigan and Mississippi.
Advocates of allowing new lawsuits on old abuse say doing so would not just bring abusers to justice for long-ago crimes but could also identify sexual predators who still hold their positions - whether as clergy, educators or sports coaches.
“There are predators still in contact with children, predators known by powerful institutions like the church, like school groups, like yeshivas and even in many families,” said Hoylman, the New York legislator. “Until we have a chance for survivors to re-open their civil claims, these individuals we can only assume will continue their crimes.”
Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Cynthia Osterman