In the course of the last thirty years throughout the country, however, as the sexual abuse of minors has become a matter of public concern and people have become more aware of the difficulty that victims / survivors have in finding their voice to report the abuse, the church’s law and the states’ laws regarding the statute of limitations have changed.
But, the Catholic bishops in the United States usually have not followed the example of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI who made important changes to the statute of limitations for clergy sexual abuse of minors in the universal law of the church.
Changes in Church Law
According to the Code of Canon Law as it was promulgated in 1983, the statute of limitations for the crime of clergy sexual abuse of a minor was five years from the date of the offense and the age of a minor was set at below the age of 16 years (cf. canons 1362, §1, 2° and 1395, §2). This includes both actions against the church’s crime of sexual abuse of a minor and also actions seeking compensation for damages inflicted by the cleric (in the United States these are referred to as actions in “criminal” law and in “civil” law).
During the late 1980s and the 1990s, as the quantity of clergy sexual abuse cases increased and the reality that victims / survivors might require many years before being able to voice an allegation, it became clear that the five-year statute of limitation and the age of a minor were inappropriate.
So, on April 30, 2001, Pope John Paul II changed the law so that the age of a minor became below 18 years of age and the statute of limitations was changed to the victim being 28 years of age at the time the allegation is made known to the church, regardless when the crime took place (10 years beyond reaching adulthood at age 18). Please note that this change took place before the 2002 Boston Globe stories and the bishops’ meeting in Dallas.
Next, in 2003 Pope John Paul II implemented another change. Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger obtained from Pope John Paul authority, known as a faculty, for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) to use as the statute of limitations in cases of clergy sexual abuse of minors the victim’s age being no more than 38 years at the time the allegation is made known to the church (thus, 20 years after the victim’s 18th birthday).
Moreover and this is very important, in 2003 the CDF also was authorized to raise the victim’s age limit beyond age 38 if necessary, on a case-by-case basis. For example, if at the time of making an allegation the victim’s age is 45, for that case the age in the statute of limitations can be changed to 45. This authority provides the means for the Church to deal with allegations of clergy sexual abuse even after the time of the statute of limitations has passed. The CDF can change the statute of limitations to fit the needs of each case.
Hence, with these changes in the law, it appeared that the statute of limitations would never again prevent the Church from dealing with an abuser priest, no matter how long in the past the crime occurred. The statute of limitations could be waived if necessary. Finally, on May 21, 2010 Pope Benedict XVI formalized into church law the authority that John Paul had granted to the CDF in 2003.
These 2001 and 2003 changes in the statute of limitations are explained in an important Vatican document: Circular Letter to Assist Episcopal Conferences in Developing Guidelines for Dealing with Cases of Sexual Abuses of Minors Perpetrated by Clerics. This document was issued on May 3, 2011 by Cardinal William Levada, then the Prefect of the CDF. Here is the link to that document. (See: II)
But, one important question still remained. Were these changes in the church law retroactive, or were they only for crimes committed after the changes in the law? This question is important in light of canon 9 of the Code of Canon Law that stipulates that new laws deal with the future, not the past, unless there is a specific provision in the new law concerning the past. Although the CDF has been questioned about this point, no authoritative answer has been provided.
However, a review of available information on specific clergy abuse cases shows that laicizations of priests were granted in 2004 or later where the publicly alleged crime of clergy sexual abuse of minors took place more than five years before the processing of the case by the CDF. Thus, these cases of older crimes, so to speak, appear not to have been processed according to the 1983 law but rather according to the changes established in 2001 or 2003.
Therefore, it can be concluded that the 2001 and 2003 changes in the church’s statute of limitations in cases of clergy sexual abuse of a minor have a retroactive effect that helps to remove abuser priests from the ranks of the clergy, no matter how long ago the crime took place.
In addition, the USCCB’s Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection confirms this conclusion in a 2013 statement: “There is no statute of limitations for removing a cleric who has sexually abused a minor from public ministry in the Catholic Church”. Here is the link to that statement. (See: # 13)
So much for what the Vatican has done. But, how might these changes in church law influence life within American courts? There is some important work that can and needs to be done.
For advocacy purposes when dealing with state legislatures, some further analysis of the data that is available would be worthwhile, perhaps on a diocese-by-diocese basis. Indeed, this further analysis would help in making presentations to committees of state legislatures where a change to the statute of limitations is being considered because the data from such an analysis might demonstrate that clergy sexual abuse cases from within the state have been handled by the church using an updated statute of limitations and in a retroactive way. Consequently, it could be argued that the Catholic bishops should be supporting comparable changes in state laws.
Finally, concerning the church law, It also is very important to note that the changes in the church’s statute of limitations concern both the crime of sexual abuse of a minor or vulnerable adult and also actions to recover compensation for damages incurred because of the crime, thus regarding both “criminal” law and “civil” law, as we would say in the United States.
Changes in state laws
State laws have a history similar to the church’s experience. In 1983 (the year that the Code of Canon Law was promulgated), the states’ statutes of limitations for sexual abuse of a minor (although varying from state to state) were a relatively small number of years and not linked to the age of the victim. Also, the statues could vary depending if the action sought was a criminal action or a civil action.
But in the years following 1983, most states have changed their statutes of limitations allowing the victim more time to report the sexual abuse. Most of these changes altered the timing for a victim to bring a criminal complaint, but some changes also addressed the timing to file a civil action. In addition, while most of these changes in the law apply to the future, to crimes committed after the legislative change takes effect, some changes in state laws have a retroactive impact.
Bishops’ approach to changes in states’ statutes of limitations
Generally, the Catholic bishops in the United States have opposed or at least have not been very supportive of changes to the states’ statutes of limitations that would ease victims finding legal recourse of the sexual abuse committed against them. But this approach by the bishops lacks in two regards.
First, the bishops fail to show a pastoral concern for the victims / survivors by not acknowledging that for many of the victims they were not able to speak up sooner and that the wheels of justice need to be patient.
Second, the bishops fail to acknowledge the wisdom of the two popes who changed the statute of limitations in the universal law of the church. Now there is a flexible statute of limitations for clergy sexual abuse in church law so that no allegation is barred by time, but the bishops in the U.S. seem to oppose or at least not strongly support most changes to the statute of limitations for actions in state courts.
Many bishops in the United States present themselves as being disciples of Pope John Paul and of Pope Benedict, yet they don’t follow the teaching of these two popes when it comes to changing the states’ statutes of limitations. Why not? Is there some yet-to-be-discovered explanation for this attitude?