Holly Richardson: Reprehensible tales of child sexual abuse and cover-up prove the statute of limitations needs to be changed

(Matt Rourke | The Associated Press) Judy Deaven, who says her son was a victim of sexual abuse by a priest as a boy, reacts as Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018. A Pennsylvania grand jury says its investigation of clergy sexual abuse identified more than 1,000 child victims. The grand jury report released Tuesday says that number comes from records in six Roman Catholic dioceses.

Hundreds of predators. Over a thousand victims. Sadism rings, child pornography, “sharing” victims and cover-up that reached, in some cases, all the way to the top, by men in positions of trust and authority, men of God, they called themselves.

The scathing, almost 1,400-page report from a Pennsylvania grand jury lays out a sordid and disturbing tale of decades of abuse and cover-up within six Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania. The grand jury met for two years, reviewed a half a million pages of documentation received from the dioceses themselves and identified more than 300 predator priests and more than 1,000 child victims. The report also adds, “We believe that the real number — of children whose records were lost, or who were afraid to ever come forward — is in the thousands.

“Most of the victims were boys; but there were girls too. Some were teens; many were prepubescent. Some were manipulated with alcohol or pornography. Some were made to masturbate their assailants or were groped by them. Some were raped orally, some vaginally, some anally. But all of them were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institution above all.”

In one disturbing example, a priest raped a girl, got her pregnant and then arranged an abortion. The bishop wrote a letter expressing his feelings: “This is a very difficult time in your life, and I realize how upset you are. I too share your grief.” But the letter was not for the girl. It was for the rapist.

The report details what the grand jury describes as a “playbook for concealing the truth.” Use euphemisms for sexual assault. Choose fellow clergy members rather than unbiased professionals to "ask inadequate questions and then make credibility determinations about the colleagues with whom they live and work.” Send priests for “evaluation” to church-run psychiatric treatment centers. Never say why a priest is removed. If a predator’s conduct does become known to the community, don’t remove him from the priesthood. Instead, transfer him to a new location where no one will know he is a child abuser. “Finally, and above all, don’t tell the police,” says the grand jury report. Don’t treat it like a crime. “Handle it like a personnel matter, ‘in house.’”

The grand jury report also reveals a consistent practice of attempting to discredit victims with “unrelated and irrelevant attacks” on their character, including spreading reports that one victim was a “go-go dancer” after she was molested by her priest and religion teacher. Another was kicked out of her Catholic school for reporting the abuse she suffered at the hands of that same priest.

There is a disturbing pattern of hush money being paid, with “nondisclosure agreements” preventing recipients from ever discussing the abuse or taking further action. In 2010, in his book “Vow of Silence,” author and journalist Jason Berry found that the Catholic Church had, to that point, spent $2.6 billion to keep victims quiet.

No bishop, no priest, no ecclesiastical authority should ever abuse a child without being subject to the full weight of the law.

The statute of limitations needs to be changed, in every state across the nation. Many predators seem to know if they can just cover up long enough for the time limit to expire, they can continue on their predatory way with few consequences or repercussions. I agree with the grand jury’s recommendation that the criminal statute of limitations on childhood sexual abuse needs to be eliminated. “We want future victims to know they will always have the force of the criminal law behind them, no matter how long they live. And we want future child predators to know they should always be looking over their shoulder — no matter how long they live.”

The grand jury has three additional recommendations. First, a “civil window” law that would let older victims sue the diocese for the damage inflicted upon them when they were children. Next, improvement on the laws for mandated reporting to avoid any “wiggle room.” Finally, they recommend new laws concerning nondisclosure agreements. “There should be no room for debate,” the report says; “no nondisclosure agreement can or should apply to criminal investigations.”

The damage that has been done been done by decades of abuse, cover-up and victim-shaming and blaming is incalculable. The price the victims and survivors pay is high — far higher than the perpetrators. Sometimes, the victims try to escape the pain by ending their lives. Poignantly, while the grand jury was deliberating, one of the victims who testified in front of them tried to end her life. From her hospital bed, she asked for one thing: that the grand jury finish its work and tell the world what really happened.

It is up to us to ensure their telling actually makes a difference.

(Photo Courtesy Holly Richardson)

Holly Richardson, a regular Tribune contributor, aches for the victims of sexual abuse and aligns herself with the New Testament saying about millstones and depths of the sea.