In September 2005, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office published the 423-page grand jury report outlining claims of sexual abuse and an institutional cover-up in the Philadelphia Archdiocese. The allegations included a priest who allegedly impregnated an 11-year-old girl through rape, then took her to get an abortion; a boy awoke in a priest’s bed, dazed from intoxication, to find one priest sucking on his penis while three more watched and masturbated; a teenage girl, immobilized by traction in a hospital bed, molested by a priest until she rang the bell for a nurse. In all, the report named 62 priests as alleged abusers. But none of them could be charged due to the statute of limitations.
“The abuser priests, by choosing children as targets and trafficking on their trust, were able to prevent or delay reports of their sexual assaults, to the point where applicable statutes of limitations expired,” wrote the grand jury. “And Archdiocese officials, by burying those reports … managed to outlast any statutes of limitation. As a result, these priests and officials will necessarily escape criminal prosecution. We surely would have charged them if we could have done so.”
The 2005 grand jury’s top-priority recommendation was: “Abolish the statute of limitations for sexual offenses against children, as several other states have already done.”
The Archdiocese fired back in a 76-page response to the report issued through their longtime attorneys of Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young. In it, the church called the grand jury report a project of “exceptional hostility driven by fixed opinions, unbridled cage rattling and insidious pre-judgments about the Catholic Church” and a “vile, mean-spirited diatribe against the Church and the Archdiocese.”
Charlie Gallagher, lead prosecutor on the 2005 report, recalls how the church came out swinging against the efforts to reform SOLs. “The Catholic Church and the insurance lobbyists fought against this all through 2006,” says Gallagher, who worked closely with newly minted City Councilman Dennis O’Brien, then a legislator in Harrisburg championing SOL reform.
They managed to extend the criminal statute of limitation to age 50.
“It was one of the heaviest-lifting things I ever did,” says O’Brien. “And I did a lot of stuff.” But it still has not, as the grand jury recommended in 2005, been abolished.
Lerner, 41, learned about the SOL in 1998 when she and her cousin (also a victim) went to the D.A. in Union County, Pa., to file charges against a family member they say raped them for years, starting when Lerner was 4 years old.
“We thought he was going to be arrested after we came forward because he admitted he raped us,” she says. “[But] he wasn’t. That’s when we found out what the SOLs were.”
He is free, but in many ways, she is not.
“I just saw him over Thanksgiving, came face to face with him, and didn’t know what to do … It’s a horrible, horrible feeling to know that you have the power within you to be able to tell, you have the knowledge to be able to prevent other children’s lives from being ruined and the law in Pennsylvania says I’m not allowed to. I’m not allowed to help other kids to not get raped.”
As for the Catholic Church, Lerner says: “They keep saying things are changing but they’re not changing. The second grand jury report says they’re still harboring these criminals, still protecting them.”
Last February, District Attorney Seth Williams issued a second grand jury report on the Philadelphia Archdiocese.
In the 2005 report, Edward Avery was accused of abusing a 12-year-old boy in the late 1970s while an assistant pastor at St. Philip Neri in Pennsburg. After undergoing a psychological evaluation at St. John Vianney Hospital—a facility often scapegoated for recommending molester priests return to work, that it also owned by the Philadelphia Archdiocese—Avery resigned as pastor of St. Therese of the Child Jesus and was placed on health leave for four months before being re-assigned as chaplain at Nazareth Hospital. Ten years later, in 2003, he was placed on administrative leave. He is charged with raping a boy referred to in the report as “Billy,” sometime between 1998 and 2000, when the boy was between 10 and 12 years old. Father Charles Engelhardt, 64, and teacher Bernard Shero, 47, face charges of raping the same boy.
Blood Bath: Church vs. State
When Archbishop Cardinal Justin Rigali retired from The Philadelphia Archdiocese last year, Pope Benedict XVI called on Rev. Charles Chaput, who served as the archbishop of Denver since 1997, to replace him. While most Philadelphians hadn’t heard of Reverend Chaput, SOL reform advocates had—and they weren’t happy to hear he was moving East.
Though admirers credit Chaput with handling sensitive investigations such as the one into the Legionaries of Christ, Chaput is also credited with squashing SOL reform in Denver.
“Oh we knew,” says Lerner. “I worked with Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) and we both were very much aware of what was going on in Denver, what he did, the tactics he employed out there. It really didn’t shock me when they sent him here to Philadelphia. It was a smart move on their part.”
As the Colorado Independent put it in a headline at the time, “Penn. Lawmakers Seeking to Bolster Sex Abuse Laws Will Have to Outmaneauver Chaput: Archbishop defeated similar efforts in Colorado with hardball high-end lobbying and PR campaigns.”