Over the past week, I’ve seen a lot of lauding of Pope Francis’ efforts to fight poverty, global climate change, and war. There is very little recognition that the Catholic church is involved in lobbying against laws that would extend the statute of limitations, allowing victims of sexual abuse that occurred decades ago to find justice. Statutes of limitations in some states are as little as two to three years, which has made it impossible to prosecute priests (and others) for past sexual abuse. The Catholic Church—and, presumably, Pope Francis—want to keep it that way.
And before anyone tries toe exempt Pope Francis from any responsibility for this, let me remind you that he is the pope. He could order his bishops to stop fighting legal efforts to extend the statute of limitations, or even come out with an encyclical on child protection that endorses an end to statutes of limitation entirely. He is not doing any of this. Instead, he is either actively supporting or passively ignoring his own church’s efforts to prevent those sexually abused decades (or even years) ago from seeking justice.
While the first criminal trial of a Roman Catholic church official accused of covering up child sexual abuse has drawn national attention to Philadelphia, the church has been quietly engaged in equally consequential battles over abuse, not in courtrooms but in state legislatures around the country.
The fights concern proposals to loosen statutes of limitations, which impose deadlines on when victims can bring civil suits or prosecutors can press charges. These time limits, set state by state, have held down the number of criminal prosecutions and civil lawsuits against all kinds of people accused of child abuse — not just clergy members, but also teachers, youth counselors and family members accused of incest.
Victims and their advocates in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New York are pushing legislators to lengthen the limits or abolish them altogether, and to open temporary “windows” during which victims can file lawsuits no matter how long after the alleged abuse occurred.
The Catholic Church has successfully beaten back such proposals in many states, arguing that it is difficult to get reliable evidence when decades have passed and that the changes seem more aimed at bankrupting the church than easing the pain of victims.
In the Catholic Church, holding onto church money matters more than finding justice for victims of child sexual abuse. Remember that the next time you see someone post something lauding Pope Francis for eating with the homeless, or pushing back against capitalism, or believing the science on global climate change.
What did the Bible say about caring for “the least of these”?