Apr 17, 2002
Old Allegations Spur Prosecutors to Re-Examine Statutes of Limitations in Church Abuse Cases
By Robert Tanner
The Associated Press
Pursuing allegations of sex abuse by clergy from years or even decades ago, prosecutors across the
country are scrutinizing the limits on trying old cases and toughening demands for Roman Catholic
Church records.
There's even talk among the nation's prosecutors of circumventing statutes of limitations, with a
theory that the legal clock shouldn't start ticking if church officials kept allegations from law
"The cloak of secrecy has been the biggest problem," said Kevin Meenan, the district attorney in
Casper, Wyo., and president of the National District Attorneys Association.
For prosecutors, church officials and victims alike, the passage of time is a difficult issue.
Many victims say they struggle for years before coming forward with their stories. Church officials in
some dioceses, after the burst of attention in recent months, said they didn't release information about
older abuse charges because too much time had passed.
Prosecutors often approach years-old cases with worry, too.
"Every day and every year that goes by, these cases are more difficult to establish guilt beyond a
reasonable doubt," said David Gorcyca, the Oakland County, Mich., prosecutor.
That's partly the reason for statutes of limitations - memories become less reliable and witnesses
harder to find - and laws vary from state to state.
Massachusetts has a 15-year limit for child rape and a six-year limit for sexual touching, though the
clock stops if a suspected abuser leaves the state. California changed its law so a six-year limit was
eliminated for child molestation cases. Eleven other states have no time limits for prosecuting most
sexual offenses against children.
Meenan said strategies are still emerging among the nation's prosecutors on how statutes of limitations
could be challenged, and what steps could be taken to improve existing laws.
"Everybody's taking a look," he said. "People are arguing that the church received the information, and
covered up the information, therefore the statute can be tolled (put on hold) until the information
comes to light." But he's unaware of the argument actually being made in court yet.
Other challenges could be based on the premise that the time limit shouldn't begin until the minor is an
adult, and makes the decision whether to report or not, Meenan said.
"At every prosecuting attorney association nationwide, this issue is going to be addressed," Gorcyca
But others are skeptical.
"Most judges have been very, very reluctant to read in changes to the law," said Patrick Schiltz, dean
of the University of St. Thomas Law School in Minneapolis, who has defended dioceses in hundreds of
abuse cases in civil courts.
"The bottom line is prosecutors are political beings, many of them are feeling great political pressure to
do something. ... They're just searching for long shots."
Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, a spokesman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops,
insisted church leaders have been referring abuse complaints to district attorneys for years.
But in many instances, prosecutors have concluded the evidence was insufficient, and have told the
dioceses they should handle the allegations internally, he said. He also said many victims have asked
that their claims be kept confidential.
Prosecutors say they have acted on information when its been offered in the past, but now they're
becoming more aggressive.
In Philadelphia, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua has said the archdiocese has credible evidence that 36
priests abused about 50 minors since 1950. But District Attorney Lynne Abraham has not received a
single report - from the church or victims - during her 11-year tenure, her office said.
"The old policy of (the church) dealing with these issues internally did not work," Gorcyca said. "We're
becoming more strident in our efforts to compel the church to forward any information."
Approaches vary widely, from informal and cooperative - as in Delaware, where the bishop and state
attorney general met in private - to formal subpoenas, as in New Hampshire and Ohio.
The most combative step may be on New York's Long Island, where a special grand jury was convened
to investigate allegations of sexual abuse and how the 1.5-million member Rockville Centre Diocese
handled those accusations.
"They may not only be looking for priests that have molested, but they may be looking for higher-ups
that haven't come forward," said Jim Cohen, a law professor at New York's Fordham University. "That's
a felony."