Catholic report shows there should be no time limit for justice | Editorial
The state attorney general’s office has concluded a two-year investigation into alleged sexual abuse by Catholic priests. Investigators believe the systemic abuse has been largely weeded out.
That’s the good news. The bad news is investigators say they have enough evidence to prosecute dozen of priests, and here’s what they plan to do about it:
They can’t. Statute-of-limitations laws make the alleged criminals untouchable.
“Some of these people, we would have loved to have prosecuted,” statewide prosecutor Nick Cox told CBS12 News in West Palm Beach.
Beyond the names, investigative details and disturbing anecdotes, the report could be interpreted as a 19-page distress letter to Florida lawmakers. The conclusions tell us that the Legislature needs to pass a “look-back” law that would override statute-of-limitations constraints.
If ever a situation demanded a good look back, it’s this one.
Florida’s attorney general’s office set up a hotline and investigated 267 tips. The report said the Catholic Church had relocated 81 priests to the state — priests the church knew had a history of sexual abuse.
Investigators identified 97 other priests they say could have been charged with sex crimes. Of those, 10 were prosecuted and 36 are deceased.
The other 51?
They’re out of the religion business, but they have no legal worries. Neither does any church official who might have covered up for them. Statute-of-limitations rules for sex crimes were their Stay-Out-Jail-Free cards.
Offenses like murder and kidnapping can be prosecuted regardless of when they occurred. That’s why ex-Nazis were being hunted down decades after World War II.
Lesser crimes are often treated like milk cartons in a grocery store. If they are not sold/prosecuted by a certain date, they are taken off the shelf, and Florida until recently been quick to remove sex crimes.
In 2010, the Legislature passed a statute-of-limitations reform law for sex abuse crimes against children under 16. This year it passed “Donna’s Law,” which eliminated all statutes of limitations for sexual assaults against anyone under 18.
But that law is not retroactive. If the offense was committed before July 1, 2020, the old statute-of-limitations rules apply.
The obvious remedy is to get rid of that provision. Not for every crime, but sexual abuse is unique.
One reason statute-of-limitations laws exist is because memories fade over time. It’s hard to get reliable witness testimony on a 30-year-old robbery.
The mental forces of sexual abuse are just the opposite. It can take decades for someone to overcome the shame and realize how profoundly they were abused.
That’s what happened when investigators started turning over rocks in Pennsylvania. The scandal prompted other states to launch inquiries and amend statute-of-limitations laws.
Sixteen states have passed so-called look-back laws. They establish a period in which victims can file civil suits and/or press criminal charges after the statute of limitations has expired.
New York initially passed a one-year window in 2019. It prompted more than 1,300 lawsuits and was extended six months to meet the demand. California has a three-year window. Pennsylvania loosened its statute-of-limitations laws but had not passed look-back reform.
Florida has no look-back laws, though there is hope for victims.
Sen. Lauren Book introduced a bill this year that would have allowed one year for sexual-abuse survivors to file civil suits on previously unreported claims. The measure went nowhere in the Legislature, but expect it to resurface in next year’s legislative session.
If it becomes law, advocates expect at least 1,000 civil claims would be filed. Child abuse advocates want criminal charges to be added to look-back laws, but legal experts say that would likely be ruled unconstitutional.
The Catholic Church isn’t the only organization that warrants a look back. Youth sports organizations and the Boy Scouts of America have also been scandalized by sexual-abuse charges.
Tens of thousands of adults deserve their day in court for heinous acts they endured as children. Everyone should agree on that, right?
“The (Church) seems committed to righting past wrong,” the Attorney General’s report said.
But guess which organization has been a leading opponent of look-back laws?
The Catholic Church.
It has spent more than $10.5 million lobbying against statute-of-limitations reform laws in eight states. If the Church is truly committed to righting past wrongs, it needs to lobby for look-back laws.
And if Florida lawmakers are truly committed to that goal, they need to pass such laws.
Milk should have an expiration date.
Justice should not.