There is no reason for sex crimes to have statutes of limitations — particularly if the victim was a minor at the time of the offense. In Ohio, the statute is 25 years from the time the offense was committed, or within 25 years after a person turns 18 in the case of minors. That was increased in recent years from 20 years, not based on the Catholic Church’s well documented issues with victims of sexual abuse — as outlined in CNHI’s “Cost of Abuse” package in today’s paper — but instead a backlog of rape DNA kits in Ohio that hadn’t been tested. That backlog has thankfully been cleared, but too many victims have still been denied justice. We firmly believe sex crimes belong in the same category as murder and no offender should be able to run out the clock on justice.
Ohio lawmakers speak in generalities about being open to “revisiting” the “window of opportunity,” but there is no current movement or will to get legislation rolling. Yet, as we continue to learn more about systemic abuse that has been covered up, particularly — but by no means exclusively — by the Catholic Church, it is clear that is not sufficient.
Last year, we saw the bombshell report by the Pennsylvania grand jury showing at least 1,000 children — probably “thousands” — suffered abuse at the hands of more than 300 more priests or church-affiliated individuals across six dioceses. In Ohio, the Youngstown Diocese released a list of 34 priests credibly accused of sexual abuse and a dozen of the clergy members named had an assignment passing through Ashtabula County at some point in their careers.
It has typically been the power of institutions like the Catholic Church that have killed the will to reform statute of limitations laws. Even while saying the release of this information is meant to heal the wounds, institutional issues remain and there is still too much defensiveness by church officials. For example, when pressed about whether the release of the list in October promoted more victims to come forward, the Rev. Monsignor John Zuraw, Catholic Diocese of Youngstown, responded by saying: “Did we get a lot of inquiries when this list came out? The answer is no. Hopefully the church is turning the corner on all of this. All priests don’t victimize people. All priests are not child abusers. It’s a very small amount. You’re giving an impression that we get thousands and thousands of calls daily.”
Such comments can give the impression, even unintentionally, that the church’s reputation and financial interests, and not the victims, are the priority. While we certainly believe most priests are in fact men of God who wish to serve their communities, it doesn’t really matter what percentage of priests were abusers because the systemic issues allowed those men — be it a single priest or 4 percent of them — to violate children, tear families and faiths apart and then be protected from justice. Openness and humility is needed to rebuild a shattered trust.
However, there is hope in the response of every day Catholics, like those interviewed in today’s edition by our sister paper the Sharon Herald, who don’t view the quest for justice as a persecution but a chance to cleanse the church. We see it as well locally in stewards like Ashtabula County Prosecutor Nick Iarocci, a devout Catholic who will be ordained as a deacon in the Roman Catholic Church this year, and yet aggressively prosecutes sex offenders and supports eliminating the statue of limitations.
Allowing those victims to seek justice will not destroy the church, but strengthen it. And, financially, the church is well-protected by civil caps. Civil claims in sex cases involving juveniles must be brought within 12 years from when the child turns 18, meaning they have until they are 30 years old to file suit. There is also a $250,000 to $350,000 cap on damages that can be awarded to victims bringing forth such civil suits — among the lowest in the country. The institution itself would remain safe, even if the criminal limitations were removed.
While many victims may not wish to come forward and relive a painful experience, that should be their choice, not one forced upon them by a calendar. It is time for lawmakers to hear the cries for justice. It is time for citizens to make those calls impossible to ignore. Victims deserve compassion. They deserve justice. They deserve better.