A year later, Catholic Church and Pennsylvania politicians ignore abuse survivors

Sexual abuse of minors and hiding abusers within the church is happening at epidemic proportions across all denominations. It’s time we reach out to survivors of abuse who have been silenced for their entire lives.

People rally in the rotunda at the Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., on Oct. 24, 2018. Survivors of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy and others ramped up pressure on Pennsylvania's Republican senators to vote on a bill that would give victims a two-year window to file lawsuits that would otherwise be outdated. More than 100 people rallied at the state Capitol after the Senate GOP majority's decision to leave Harrisburg without voting on the legislation. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)

(RNS) — As hundreds of victims of sex crimes anxiously awaited the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report on clergy sexual abuse last summer, the Catholic Church successfully blocked its release for weeks through appeals to the state’s supreme court. Some of those who had contributed testimony to the report thought it would never be released.

When the now-infamous report, containing harrowing stories of the abuse of some 1,000 children by more than 300 Pennsylvania priests over the past 70 years, was at last made public on August 14 of last year, its reverberations were felt nationally, as attorneys general in half the states in the union opened investigations or demanded more church files. In Pennsylvania alone, nearly 2,000 calls have flooded Pennsylvania’s Clergy Abuse Hotline, set up by the attorney general’s office last year in the wake of the report’s release.

Because of Pennsylvania’s archaic statute of limitations, the vast majority of the living victims of priests named in the report, and thousands more, cannot seek justice. Their abusers remain free under Pennsylvania law and cannot be prosecuted.

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I know personally how frustrating it can be for justice to be foreclosed by a statute of limitations. In 2011, my youngest sister, Alex, disclosed to me that she had been sexually abused by our father, a minister, when she was very young. My mother and I reported her accusations immediately but were informed that my then-21-year-old sister could not press charges.

Victims’ advocate Jimmy Hinton, left, with his mother, Clara Hinton, and sister Alex Howlett at the Somerset Church of Christ in Pennsylvania. Their father and husband, John Hinton, a longtime minister, is serving prison time for sexually abusing young girls. RNS photo by Bobby Ross Jr.

Our family was fortunate. Were it not for other young victims coming forward, my father, who is currently serving a 30- to 60-year prison sentence, would be free today.

Most families are not so lucky. Current Pennsylvania law keeps their abusers free while subjecting their victims to a living hell.

I was in the visitor’s gallery of Pennsylvania’s House on September 25, 2018, when Rep. Mark Rozzi’s reform bill, a.k.a. the “Window to Justice Bill,” passed. It was an emotional victory for survivors across Pennsylvania. I was also standing with survivors in Harrisburg a month later, when Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati allowed the Senate session to end without a vote on the measure because it did not exempt the Catholic Church from any lawsuits the amendment would allow.

Our neighbors in New York, by contrast, listened to survivors, and their Child Victims Act goes into effect on the one-year anniversary of the release of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report. But despite the progress being made nationally, Pennsylvania continues to be a safe state for abusers.

Victims of clergy sexual abuse, or their family members, react as Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg on Aug. 14, 2018. A Pennsylvania grand jury’s investigation of clergy sexual abuse identified more than 1,000 child victims. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

So far, Pennsylvania has ignored all four recommendations made by the grand jury aimed at making abuse easier to report and extending the window for doing so. Mary McHale, an abuse survivor, told me, “In my mind, the entire world responded to the release of the report except for Pennsylvania and the Catholic Church.”

Our Senate is not uninformed. Abuse survivors have spent countless days visiting with senators, pleading with them to help, and some continue to do so. Mike McDonnell, one of those survivors, told me that “no one knows more and no one has done less than the Pennsylvania Senate.”

This is not only a Catholic problem. Along with McHale, I serve with Pennsylvanians United to Protect Children, founded by some of the survivors from the grand jury report. We advocate on behalf of survivors by holding abusers and organizations that hide them accountable. Sexual abuse of minors and hiding abusers within the church is happening at epidemic proportions across all denominations. It’s time we reach out to survivors of abuse who have been silenced for their entire lives.

It’s time the Catholic Church and the Pennsylvania Senate listen closer and begin responding.

(Jimmy Hinton is the minister of Somerset Church of Christ in Somerset, Pennsylvania, a certification specialist with G.R.A.C.E. (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) and a member of Pennsylvanians United to Protect Children. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

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