Pennsylvania Clergy Abuse: Justice for Sex Abuse Victims

Several reports have uncovered shocking allegations of child sex abuse by Catholic clergy members in Pennsylvania, going back 70 years.

In 2018, a two-year grand jury investigation culminated in the publication of the Pennsylvania Diocese Victims Report. The 900-page document details the alleged abuse of more than 1,000 child victims at the hands of Pennsylvania clergy. The grand jury reviewed more than 500,000 pages of internal diocesan documents in the process of compiling the report.

Since the release of the 2018 grand jury report, ProPublica has also created a searchable database with the names of hundreds of priests across all eight Pennsylvania dioceses who have been credibly accused of abuse.

Key Findings of the 2018 Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report

  • More than 300 clergy members credibly accused of abuse were identified in the report.
  • The report identified more than 1,000 victims of clergy abuse.
  • Victims were mostly boys, but there were also female victims.
  • Only two of the more than 300 accused clergy members have been criminally charged since the release of the report.

How the Church Covered Up the Abuse

The grand jury investigation also uncovered a concerted effort by the Catholic Church to cover up abuse by its clergy members. In most cases highlighted in the report, church officials kept the abuse quiet to avoid scandal—even in situations where clergy members admitted to the abuse.

Church leaders used several tactics to cover up the abuse and avoid public scrutiny. These included:

  • Moving abusive priests to new parishes instead of dismissing them
  • Minimizing the severity and nature of the abuse in their reports
  • Failing to report abuse claims to law enforcement agencies

Pennsylvania Lawmakers Consider “Look-Back” Window

Many of the incidents uncovered in the report occurred decades ago and have expired in the legal system due to statute of limitation laws. This means that many survivors of clergy abuse are unable to file lawsuits against their abusers.

In 2019, Pennsylvania lawmakers overhauled the state’s child sex crime laws. They extended the deadline for survivors to file civil claims against their abusers to age 55 and eliminated the criminal statute of limitations for most felony sexual offenses against minors.

Unfortunately, the law didn’t give victims a legal “look-back” window to file lawsuits against their abuser after the statute of limitations expired.

Lawmakers are attempting to remedy this with a bill that would provide such a statutory window.

As of early 2022, there is growing momentum to increase rights for survivors. Pennsylvania state courts will likely see an increase in lawsuits filed against abusive clergy members—and the dioceses that covered up the abuse—in the coming years.

What Is the Statute of Limitations on Pennsylvania Clergy Abuse Claims?

A statute of limitations (SOL) is a legal deadline that restricts the amount of time a person/party has to initiate legal proceedings from the date of an alleged offense. SOLs vary based on several factors, including the crime, the jurisdiction, and whether it is a criminal charge or a civil claim.

In Pennsylvania, there are two different statutes for child sexual abuse claims: a civil statute and a criminal statute: 

  • Pennsylvania Civil Statute for Child Sex Abuse – Victims of child sexual abuse can legally file a civil lawsuit against their abuser until they reach age 55.
  • Pennsylvania Criminal Statute for Child Sex Abuse –  There is no criminal statute of limitations for most felony sexual offenses against a minor in Pennsylvania. The law changed in 2019 to extend legal protections for child sex abuse victims. 

Since Pennsylvania’s laws protecting child sex abuse victims didn’t change until 2019, and since no look-back window has yet been created, many victims of clergy sex abuse still have not gotten justice.

Pennsylvania Dioceses’ Settlement and Compensation Funds

After the release of the 2018 grand jury report, seven of the eight Pennsylvania dioceses set up clergy abuse funds to compensate victims. The Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown chose not to open a compensation fund, citing financial hardships.

The compensation funds allow dioceses to settle claims without having to answer lawsuits or admit guilt. In Pennsylvania, these programs have paid nearly $84 million to more than 560 clergy sex abuse victims.

The fact that these compensation funds exist at all illustrates the extent of the problem with the Catholic Church. But it also highlights one possible road to financial compensation and closure for survivors of these heinous crimes.

As of September 2019, all of the Pennsylvania Dioceses’ victim compensation funds are closed to new claims. This doesn’t mean there aren’t other avenues to pursue legal action.

How to Report Sexual Abuse by a Clergy Member in Pennsylvania

If you or a suspected victim is in danger, call 911 immediately.

You can report suspected child abuse to Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services (DHS) by calling the ChildLine at 1-800-932-0313.

You can also report suspected abuse to the Attorney General’s Office by calling the clergy abuse hotline at 888-538-8541.

Did You Suffer Clergy Abuse in Pennsylvania?

If you or someone you love suffered abuse from a priest or other clergy member in Pennsylvania, the experienced clergy sex abuse lawyers at Saunders & Walker P.A. may be able to help.

Contact our law firm today for a free clergy abuse case review

Your confidentiality is our number one priority. Our clergy abuse attorneys understand how difficult it can be to come forward regarding sexual abuse—especially in cases where abusers threaten their victims. The shame, guilt, and fear survivors of clergy sexual abuse live with can be overwhelming and sometimes debilitating.

We treat your inquiries with absolute confidentiality. You can expect us to handle your inquiry with sensitivity, respect, and discretion.

There is no substitute for sound legal advice when you have been the victim of past abuse by a trusted religious figure. Contact us today at (727) 579-4500 to speak to one of our experienced team members. We can help you understand whether you have a claim now or in the future and provide meaningful feedback for your situation.