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Give victims of sexual abuse some chance for justice

By May 4, 2008June 22nd, 2020No Comments

Bucks County Courier Times

In February of this year, the Bucks County Courier Times carried two articles about Dave Sicoli, former priest stationed at Immaculate Conception parish in Levittown. Sicoli was one of the many priests in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia who had been named as a sexual predator in the grand jury report on the Philadelphia Archdiocese.

One article was written by Matt Coughlin, who reported that Sicoli had been defrocked by the Vatican.

This could only have happened if the evidence against Sicoli clearly and unambiguously found him guilty of the sexual abuses of which he had been accused. The second, by Ben Finley, brought attention to the fact that Sicoli has a home somewhere in Sea Isle, N.J., yet his neighbors have no access to knowledge about Sicoli’s past.

Both articles made reference to the statute of limitations as the reason for this dreadful reality. What seems to be apparent is the need to support legislation in Harrisburg (House Bill 1574), which has been in committee. But why the holdup? Why has this bill allowing for civil action against these predators not found unanimous support?

I suggest that the best answer can be found in a newly published book, “Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children,” written by Marci Hamilton and published by Cambridge University Press. A lawyer and constitutional expert, Hamilton tackles the issue head-on but in language that is clearly written and not full of unnecessary legalese.

She argues that the legal system has obstinately persisted in supporting sexual predators at the expense of victimized children. For Hamilton, the solution is simple. The statute of limitations for sexual offenses against children must be eliminated. But simple is not apparent, especially to those with a vested interest in keeping those victimized out of the courtroom.

According to Hamilton, many in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church have actively and successfully lobbied in numerous states to defeat legislation that even opens a window of opportunity for victims. Yet, she is not guilty of Church bashing. She acknowledges the role that the Church has played in this arena but points to the insurance lobbyists as the primary, albeit quieter, barrier.

So too have teacher unions, some defense attorneys, and finally the many of us who might fall into the category of uninformed public, been complicit in looking out for something or someone other than children who need a voice.

Of the many arguments that Hamilton proposes, one that I support wholeheartedly is those who have been sexually abused are not likely to report their abuse until adulthood and the rate of nondisclosure is estimated to be nearly 90 percent. In my own research I found that over 25 percent of those abused by a priest did not disclose until after that age of 49. Of those abused by someone other than a priest, 28 percent had not disclosed until the ages of 40-49.

The benefits of abolishing the statute of limitations seem obvious. I agree with Hamilton. We will have better knowledge of those among us who have abused children. More children will have greater protection. Finally, members of the clergy are by no means the primary perpetrators of sexual abuse. No organization is exempt and sexual abuse is most often committed by a family member. We must take a stand for the civil rights of our children.

As Hamilton documented, in California, where the statute “window” was enacted, only a small fraction of claims were found to be false and 300 new abusers (by some estimates) were identified. Surely this is worth the cost. Are we in Pennsylvania, like Californians, willing to take a stand in favor of our children? I encourage you to read Hamilton’s book and, more importantly, write a letter in support of House Bill 1574.

Diane Shea, Langhorne, is an adjunct professor at Holy Family University and is a former director of residential services for Elwyn, Inc.