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Lawyer For 2 Catholic Dioceses Weighs In On Pa. Grand Jury Report


Earlier this week, a Pennsylvania grand jury released a report. It detailed the results of an investigation into the sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests in six of the state's dioceses. The report found that more than 300 priests had abused children, and there were credible accusations by more than a thousand victims. Matt Haverstick is counsel for two of the dioceses included in the report, Harrisburg and Greensburg. And he joins us on the phone from suburban Philadelphia.

Thank you for joining us, Mr. Haverstick.

MATT HAVERSTICK: Good morning. Nice to talk to you.

KING: This report was appalling. We read about children being raped, molested, passed around by predator priests. You represent the people who led the dioceses. How do they explain what happened?

HAVERSTICK: Well, I think they start by apologizing for what happened. And they have. I mean, bear in mind, it is awful. It's a horrible read. It's shocking. But it is, by and large, as the grand jury found, literally from the last century. That's a church that doesn't exist anymore. The church today is deeply sorry for those events. But they don't do things that way anymore.

KING: It is a church from the last century. But these victims, many of them, are still alive. And there's no way for them to get recourse because the statute of limitations has run out. Can you explain what the statute of limitations is and why it should apply here?

HAVERSTICK: Well, for any civil claim or criminal claims, there are time limits - well, for most anyway - there are time limits that allow you to bring a civil lawsuit for money or, if you're the government, to charge someone with a crime. And there are victims and survivors who have claims that date back from the '50s and '60s. And their ability to sue for money ran out some time ago.

KING: Does that seem right to you?

HAVERSTICK: Well, I don't think of it in terms of right or wrong. I think of it in terms of what our state constitution allows for. The issues that we're talking about are really ones that, I think, are best left to lawmakers.

KING: Let's talk about lawmakers because other states have changed laws. Many states have extended or abolished statutes of limitations for criminal prosecution of child sexual abuse felonies. Why doesn't Pennsylvania do that?

HAVERSTICK: Well, I - Pennsylvania can't. In terms of both criminal and civil statutes of limitations, there are constitutional protections and constitutional limitations that don't allow for retroactive reopening of statutes of limitations. So think of it less in terms of something that, you know, can or can't be done or rather something that's desirable or not desirable - something more that legally is just impossible.

KING: I'm citing a news report in The New York Times here from August 15. The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, the Times reports, whose president is Bishop Ronald Gainer of Harrisburg, argues that a proposal to change the statute of limitations would force the people who make up an organization like the Catholic Church to defend themselves against crimes that were committed years ago. I want to ask you, is the church actively lobbying against a law that would expand the statute of limitations and allow victims to get justice?

HAVERSTICK: Well, in fact, the church is in support of the bill presently that's been passed in our Senate, Senate Bill 261, that increases the statute of limitations both on civil claims and makes the criminal statutes of limitations perpetual. The church has been for that legislation, and that legislation is poised to pass the House of Representatives. And if it does, going forward, victims will have an unlimited ability to have criminal actions brought, and present-day victims will have a statute of limitations that's vastly increased from the one that exists now.

KING: The church is in support of that. Very briefly, if that law passes, what does that mean for your clients, for the dioceses you represent?

HAVERSTICK: Well, it means that if there is an abuse claim from today, that the victim or survivor of that claim has until age 50 to bring a claim. And as long as present-day claims like that, claims that happen today, are - and the statute of limitations expanded across the board for all institutions, not just the church but for schools and for other institutions, then the church is fine with that.

KING: Matt Haverstick, lawyer for the dioceses of Harrisburg and Greensburg.

Thank you.

HAVERSTICK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.