The children never had a chance. For decades, depraved Catholic priests allegedly raped and molested them in churches and rectories throughout Pennsylvania. Instead of offering help and compassion, the Catholic Church and law enforcement covered it up, according to a sweeping grand jury report by Attorney General Josh Shapiro released Tuesday.
When victims pushed through their pain to report the crimes, the church allegedly shut them down, When church officials learned of abuse, they locked away evidence in secret files and some bishops transferred known molesters to new parishes where the predators found fresh victims.
Victims said they were abused in Erie, Allentown, Greensburg, Scranton, Harrisburg and Pittsburgh. This gut-churning report claims over three hundred priests abused more than a thousand children — with the assumption there were thousands more that were never documented.
Clearly, the church has much to do to address the culture of secrecy and denial that allowed generations of children to be preyed upon. But as the grand jury points out, there are legal fixes that are within reach that could remove some of the obstacles that kept so many depraved acts in the shadows.
The main reform is for the state to raise the statute of limitations so prosecutors can charge child sex abusers no matter how old victims are. While the current law permits victims to come forward until they turn 50, that should be eliminated. The grand jury reviewed claims from those in their 70s, and even one who was 83.
In addition, the law should change to create a "civil window" so older victims can sue the institutions which covered up these crimes. While the current law gives victims 12 years to sue, an older law cuts that window to two years for people in their thirties. The grand jury doesn't call for removing any limits; just opening the window wider for some victims.
The current law covering the reporting of abuse also needs tightening. Church officials going back decades claimed they had no duty to report abuse, hiding behind ambiguous language in the law about what cases should be reported. The legislature should clean up that language.
Finally, church officials for too long hid behind confidentiality agreements signed by victims. But victims should know despite such agreements, they are free to report a crime to police.
Even these changes may not be enough to shed light on every case of abuse.
In Beaver County, for example, former District Attorney Robert Masters not only ignored reports of a priest who molested boys in the 1960s, but he also bragged about his silence to the local bishop. He admitted to the grand jury that he sat on the investigation because he wanted political support from the diocese.