This month marks the 15th anniversary of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People (often referred to as the “Dallas Charter”), a document in which U.S. bishops pledged to protect children and address the staggering problem of Catholic clergy child sexual abuse by adopting policies with “a firm determination to resolve the crisis.” The milepost is another reminder that, by and large, institutions continue to say they strive for accountability with initiatives like the Charter but in reality they often need to be forced kicking and screaming to do the right things to protect children.
Which is why civil and criminal statute of limitations (SOL) reform regarding child sex abuse is so vitally important.
In Minnesota, the 2013 Child Victims Act (CVA) eliminated the SOL for civil lawsuits for child sex abuse going forward and provided a three-year window (through May 25, 2016), for survivors to bring lawsuits against perpetrators and institutions that were previously SOL-barred. This resulted in hundreds of lawsuits against perpetrators, Catholic dioceses and religious orders, the Boy Scouts, schools and others. As a result of this litigation, institutions have been forced to begin to be more accountable, transparent and protective of children. Minnesota dioceses, for example, have publicly disclosed lists of credibly accused clergy and documents they previously refused to disclose prior the CVA litigation.
As a result of CVA laws, survivors have begun to take back some of the power that was stolen from them by abusers and the institutions that covered up their abuse. Coming forward has provided a voice and some validation for many survivors who have suffered because of their abuse.
So much more needs to done to help survivors and protect children. In the Catholic Church, for example, abusive clergy who left or were removed from the priesthood are not being properly monitored, if they are at all. Research conducted in the Archdiocese of Chicago shows that many of these priests have resided in disturbingly close proximity to schools and daycare facilities. The June 8, 2017 National Catholic Reporter blog piece linked to above notes that “Church officials covered up crimes for so long that in many cases the statute of limitations for criminal charges expired,” which prevented criminal prosecutions that would have resulted in perpetrators being listed on offender registries and given parents and teachers the ability to track them.
Too few Catholic bishops and other institutional heads have been held accountable for protecting abusers they control. Litigation – criminal and civil – is unfortunately one of the only effective tools that forces them to begin to be accountable, protect children and provide relief for survivors. That is important to remember as states such as New York and Pennsylvania contemplate their own CVA legislation. We will watch closely to see whether the powerful institutional lobbies in those states successfully thwart CVA legislation again or whether citizens there are able to push through laws that make institutions begin to actually honor initiatives like the Dallas Charter.