Tony Gentile / Reuters

Victims of clergy sex abuse say church stands in way of justice

Ahead of Pope Francis’ first US visit, victims’ advocates call on the pontiff to take on the church itself

When Pope Francis makes his first visit to the U.S. this month, he will find that wounds from the U.S. Catholic Church's sex abuse scandal have not yet healed.

Those tensions are being played out in courtrooms and state legislatures, where the church is using its legal and political clout to oppose bills that would extend the statute of limitations for victims of child sex abuse.

A statute of limitations forbids prosecutors or plaintiffs from taking legal action after a certain number of years.

The pontiff has vowed to root out “the scourge” of sex abuse from the Roman Catholic Church, and this year created a Vatican tribunal to judge clergy accused of such crimes.

But U.S. victims' advocates contend the biggest obstacle they face in giving victims more time to report abuse remains the church itself, and want the pope to change that stance.

The U.S. church has already been dealt a heavy financial blow by settlement payments and other costs totaling around $3 billion, which has forced it to sell off assets and cut costs.

“It is the bishops who have blocked any kind of meaningful reform,” said Marci Hamilton, a professor at the Cardozo School of Law in New York who studies statutes of limitations.

“The bishops and the pope have a lot of explaining to do as to why it would be in their mission to keep all of these victims from seeking justice.”

Reports that Catholic priests had sexually assaulted children, and that bishops had worked to cover up the rapes, first became big news in 2002.

As many as 100,000 U.S. children may have been the victims of clerical sex abuse, insurance experts said in a paper presented at a Vatican conference in 2012.

Some 4,300 members of the Catholic clergy were accused of sexual assault, of which at least 300 have been convicted, according to Bishop Accountability, a private group that has tracked the scandal.

U.S. statutes of limitations for criminal and civil cases vary widely from state to state, making for a patchwork system determining victims' rights to seek redress in the courts.

The church contends that allowing victims to sue over abuse decades ago would open the way for cases based on flimsy evidence as well as take a further heavy toll on its finances.

But victims' advocates are focused on reforming statutes of limitations for civil lawsuits, rather than for criminal cases.

Attempts to reform criminal statutes of limitations to apply to past crimes would likely run afoul of the U.S. Constitution, they say.

Vatican officials say the abuse issue will not be a major focus of the pope's U.S. visit but that he will address it, either at his meeting with U.S. bishops in Washington on Sept. 23 or at vespers with priests and nuns the next day, or both.

At the start of his papacy, Francis was accused of moving too slowly on sexual abuse. He later set up a commission to advise him on how to root out the problem, reach out to victims and to advise dioceses on how to employ best practices.

Wire services

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