When Trust is Forsaken: Clergy Sex Abuse in Pennsylvania

Population wise, Pennsylvania ranks sixth in the United States. Last year, one of Pennsylvania’s football teams took first place in the nation. However, there’s another first that will make most residents of the state shudder. When it comes to clergy abuse cases, it seems as though Pennsylvania leads the country.

It isn’t news that anyone wants to hear. On one level, clergy abuse screams of forsaken trust. On another, the trauma almost always results in some type of permanent damage. For some, it means living with post-traumatic stress syndrome. Others face a lifetime of depression and anxiety. A number of the abused – become abusers themselves. Unfortunately, more than one victim has taken his or her life because of clergy abuse.

For the last two years, a statewide grand jury evaluated claims of clergy abuse throughout Pennsylvania’s Roman Catholic dioceses. According to the media, the grand jury’s report will be released at the end of June. In addition to the actual acts themselves, the problem is with the way the allegations were handled. In some cases, reports were not made to law enforcement authorities. In others, church authorities seemed to interfere with investigations.

Meanwhile, clergy abuse is not just limited to Catholic priests or deacons. Some sexual abuse claims have also been brought against ministers and rabbis.

The Law and Clergy Sex Abuse

The story may sound all too familiar. Most often, it starts at a young age. For example, take Little Johnny. He’s in the fourth grade at the local Catholic school – one his parents both attended when they were kids. When the paper goes home requesting altar servers, Mom and Dad think it’s a great idea.

The training for altar servers seems a bit lengthy. In fact, Johnny’s parents are a little surprised that Johnny seems to have some private sessions with the parish pastor. However, Father is such a devout and humble man – that they have no reason to be concerned. Mom and Dad may even feel a bit honored that their son has been chosen to serve at a special Mass.

Little Johnny has always been timid. It comes as no surprise that he doesn’t discuss what he learns from the pastor. After all, Johnny doesn’t talk about anything.

Unbeknownst to anyone, Johnny suffers some form of sexual abuse whenever he is also with the parish priest. In the beginning, it was almost a game that Johnny was too afraid not to play. The priest told him it was a way of loving. Yet, Johnny felt embarrassed and ashamed. He could not tell anyone.

For many years, Johnny suppressed his memories. He told no one of the ugly days that haunted him. Johnny became angry and depressed. Ultimately, he spoke out and demanded justice for himself – and all the other children abused by the same priest.

Statute of Limitations

By the time many clergy abuse victims come forward, they are well into adulthood. The pain becomes too much for them to bear. First, there’s the affront of the crime itself. However, if there are attempts to cover up the abuse and make believe it never happened – the insult becomes even more intense.

The problem could be one of timing. Federal child sex abuse statutes only apply when the crime happens over state lines. For example, if the clergy abuse occurred on a school trip in a neighboring state – federal laws apply.

However, what are Pennsylvania laws? The answer lies in Pa. Cons. Stat. Tit. 42 § 5533(b). This portion of the statute defines child sex abuse by first identifying various sexual acts, ranging from indecent contact to sexual intercourse to other deviant behavior.

When minors are forced or threatened with forcible compulsion to perform any of these sexual acts with an adult, they are considered to be victims of abuse. If they decide to reveal the crimes committed against them, they may also pursue a civil case.

Pennsylvania law acknowledges that child sex abuse victims have a hard time coming forward. If someone was sexually abused before the age of 18, the statute of limitations is extended. A lawsuit must be filed within 12 years after the victim reaches their 18th birthday. Therefore, someone was suffered clergy sex abuse at age 10 – has until their 30th birthday to bring a case.

That said, it is always better to bring the matter to court sooner, rather than later. It is easier to gather proofs of the wrongdoing and obtain witness testimony.

Contact Us

At Fellerman & Ciarimboli, we offer experienced legal advice concerning clergy sex abuse matters. Our attorneys are good listeners – who recognize your difficulties in coming forward. We will guide you through the process and do our best to put you at ease. Contact us to see how we can help.

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With more than 40 years of combined experience, the personal injury attorneys at Fellerman & Ciarimboli strive to provide the best service to clients in Philadelphia, Northeast Pennsylvania, and throughout the Keystone State.

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