Matthew T. Mangino
The Altoona Mirror
January 20, 2013
A group of 11 young men recently settled a lawsuit against a Warren, Ohio parochial school, the Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio and an order of Franciscan Friars. The lawsuit alleged the young men were sexually assaulted by a friar in the mid-1980s.
Only one of the 11 cases remains viable for criminal prosecution in Ohio. The Franciscan Brother, Stephen Baker, allegedly involved in the assaultive conduct is based at St. Bernardine’s in Hollidaysburg and had a presence at Altoona and Johnstown parochial schools in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Unlike Ohio, potential criminal prosecutions remain viable in Pennsylvania. Although an effort to abolish the statute of limitation for child victims of sexual abuse stalled in the legislature last fall, Pennsylvania has a broad and encompassing statute that could be useful if accusations are made against Baker in Pennsylvania.
The statute of limitations plays an important and long-standing role in criminal and civil jurisprudence. The statute of limitations has been around since antiquity. As time passes, memory fades, witnesses die and evidence disappears. The statute of limitations protects individuals from facing charges under those hopeless circumstances.
However, young victims of sex abuse are often reluctant to come forward. No one would advocate that a sexual predator should escape responsibility by way of a fortuitous passage of time. A victim's conduct after an assault often conflicts with what one would expect. Jerome Elam, a victim of child sexual abuse, wrote in The Washington Times, "As victims of childhood molestation boys face significant and unique barriers in reporting what they intuitively know is inappropriate behavior." (See "An end to silence: Child sex abuse victims speaking out," Nov. 27, 2011.)
Statistically, one in eight males is a victim of abuse and a child has to tell seven adults of suspected abuse before he or she is taken seriously. Elam suggested that rates of suicide among male victims of childhood sexual abuse are 14 times higher than the norm and child victims are 38 times more likely to die from a drug overdose.
As research on the long term trauma endured by child victims of sexual assault became increasing available the Pennsylvania legislature moved to expand the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse twice in a little more than a decade.
Prior to 2002, the statute of limitations for pursuing criminal prosecution of child sexual assault was five years after the victims 18th birthday.
In 2002, the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse was extended to 12 years after the victim’s 18th birthday. In 2007, the statute of limitations was extended as part of a comprehensive package of statutes related to child abuse. As a result, the Commonwealth now has until the victim’s 50th birthday to file criminal charges for abuse that occurred before the victim turned 18.
The new law applies to any case in which the statute of limitations had not yet expired before the law took effect. Pursuant to a 1988 Superior Court decision the time for prosecution may be extended by a legislative change if the prior period has not yet expired.
For instances, a young boy was sexually assaulted by an adult. He turned 18 years of age in 1998. When he turned 18 the statute of limitation was five years. In 2002, while the victim could still file a timely criminal complaint, the statute of limitation was extended to 12 years. Five years later, while the victim was again able to file a timely criminal complaint, the statute was extended until the victim turns 50.
An offense that occurred sometime prior to 1998 will still be viable for criminal prosecution until 2030, and if the legislature gets its way the statute may soon be abolished and there will be no time limit on pursuing criminal charges.