Report of Catholic clergy abuse could lead to lawsuits and Illinois law changes

CHICAGO– The Illinois attorney general has ended a five-year investigation into Catholic clergy child sexual abuse in the state, releasing a nearly 700-page report that found the problem was far worse than which the church had acknowledged in 2018 at the start of the state review. .

Attorney General Kwame Raoul said Tuesday that state investigators have found that more than 450 Catholic clergy in Illinois have sexually abused nearly 2,000 children since 1950. But Raoul and other experts say This discovery is unlikely to lead to criminal charges.

It follows a familiar pattern – no rush to criminal charges followed the release in 2018 of an explosive grand jury report into clergy abuse in Pennsylvania or last month’s report into abuse in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. .

Advocates say they believe the report will help more people feel safe discussing what happened to them with family, friends, support groups and law enforcement. They also say it could inspire people to file civil lawsuits, even for abuses long ago. They hope legislatures will expand the statutes of limitations on sex abuse charges and toughen standards for mandatory reporting of sex abuse allegations.

“I’m proud of the attorney general and what he’s done, but we can all do more together,” said Larry Antonsen, head of the Chicago chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

Raoul said his office had referred cases that could lead to criminal charges to local prosecutors, but was not aware of any pending charges.

The attorney general’s report acknowledges that Illinois’ statutes of limitations are, despite legal changes, insurmountable obstacles to prosecuting clergy who abused children decades ago. Such laws limiting how long after a crime a suspect can be charged are intended to ensure fairness and avoid problems such as witnesses being forgotten over time and evidence disappearing.

“Because the statute of limitations has often expired, many survivors of child sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic clerics will never see justice in a legal sense,” the report said.

In the 2000s, Illinois’ statute of limitations on child sexual abuse was 20 years. State lawmakers have passed a series of laws eliminating all legal limits on child sexual abuse, effective January 1, 2020, though they are only rarely retroactive for older acts of abuse. Similar changes have been made to the filing of civil actions.

The push against statutes of limitations was prompted in part by the 2015 case of US House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Prosecutors said the time was up to charge him with abusing boys when he was a wrestling coach decades ago, but they are suing him for a bank violation related to the abuse.

There are also practical hurdles, even when older cases can be prosecuted. Many priests accused of abuse in the 70s, 80s and 90s have died. The same goes for many possible corroborating witnesses.

The report also says the Diocese’s evidentiary records – which would form the heart of any criminal case – are often woefully incomplete, disorganized and sometimes contain illegible handwriting. The report says churches generally do not investigate with criminal charges in mind.

“The child sexual abuse investigation records in the six dioceses sometimes reveal a bias in favor of protecting the institution rather than seeking the truth,” according to the report.

There is also little possibility of criminal prosecution of church officials who helped cover up the abuse, said David Clohessy, former national director of the Abuse Survivors Network. Without imposing reforms to the way churches deal with these cases, “external forces have been and remain the only effective way to bring about even a minimum of change,” he said.

In a Pennsylvania case against church officials’ handling of abuse complaints, a 20-year effort to convict Bishop William Lynn of the crime of child endangerment ended in December with a plea of ​​no -competition for misdemeanor.

Lynn was the first US church leader to face criminal charges, but his 2012 conviction was overturned twice over the next 10 years.

Civil lawsuits, however, can proceed in Illinois if a child was sexually abused in 2014 or later. But prior abuses fall under the law of the day.

Lawyers who have handled civil lawsuits for child sexual abuse have said it can be worthwhile for survivors to sue, even for older abuse not covered by state law.

Marc Pearlman, a Chicago attorney who frequently handles such cases, said attorneys can often negotiate therapy or counseling at church expense. Filing a complaint at least gives customers an opportunity to discuss what happened to them for the first time and to be believed, he said.

Michael Mertz, another lawyer who focuses on child sexual abuse cases, also encouraged those who have been abused to seek legal help and assess whether exceptions to the statute of limitations may apply to their case. .

“Illinois law currently allows victims of childhood sexual abuse to come forward when the church has fraudulently concealed their involvement in the abuse,” Mertz said. “As this report shows, the church concealed the identities of hundreds of attackers.”

In statements released on Tuesday, diocesan leaders apologized to the victims and said they had made substantial changes, ensuring the allegations are taken seriously and fully investigated.

The Archdiocese of Chicago said in its statement that it was offering “care, compassion…and even compensation to all who come forward, regardless of the statute of limitations.”

Some states have created “look-back windows” for people to sue, no matter how long they say they were abused.

But in Illinois, it would require a constitutional amendment, according to a 2009 state Supreme Court ruling in a lawsuit against three Catholic dioceses. The lawsuit said a priest acting as a school guest lecturer had sexually abused a 14-year-old boy decades earlier.

Pearlman, however, said the release of the Illinois survey could create the opportunity to push constitutional change through the Legislature and then gain voter support.

“The way to progress is to keep making small, medium and big changes when we have the opportunity,” he said. “Something like reporting in Pennsylvania, in Maryland, here in Illinois, it creates an opportunity.”

ABC News

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