By Scott Malone
BOSTON (Reuters)

The death on Wednesday of Roman Catholic Cardinal Bernard Law, who covered up the church’s child sex abuse scandal for decades, prompted U.S. activists to reflect on how far their efforts have come to make sure abusers can be prosecuted and how many hurdles remain

Thousands of people worldwide came forward to say they were child victims of priest abuse after the scandal broke in 2002. But many in the United States found that state laws protected their attackers from criminal prosecution or even civil lawsuits for crimes that were years or decades old.


People arrive at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, where Cardinal Bernard Law served in Boston
People arrive at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, where Cardinal Bernard Law, the former Archbishop of Boston who resigned in 2002 in disgrace after covering up years of sexual abuse of children, served in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., December 20, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder


That sparked a drive by advocates to reform statutes of limitations, reflecting research showing that many people sexually abused as children do not report the fact until well into adulthood. That effort has gained support from the #MeToo movement this year as millions of women have shared their stories of being sexually harassed or assaulted.

“Powerful institutions have protected abusers and kept them in place just as Cardinal Law did,” New York state Senator Brad Hoylman, author of a bill that would eliminate the statue of limitations on reporting new child sex abuse and allow a one-year period to file civil suits over older allegations.


“It’s taken us a long time to move on these issues but I think we’re at a point of culmination where change could occur next year”

U.S. statutes of limitations for criminal and civil cases vary widely by state, making for a patchwork system determining victims’ rights to seek redress in the courts.

This year eight states passed laws giving child sex abuse victims more time to legally confront their abusers, according to Child USA. Bills were introduced but not passed in four: New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Washington state.



“What the #MeToo movement shows is the public is now willing to assign blame. They are naming names and part of that is naming the legislators who are not willing to pass these laws,” said Marci Hamilton, a University of Pennsylvania professor of law and religion and chief executive of Child USA, an advocacy group which backs the measures.

As many as 100,000 U.S. children may have been victims of clerical sex abuse, insurance experts said in a paper presented at a Vatican conference in 2012. More than 6,700 members of the Catholic clergy were accused of sexual assault, according to, a private group that tracks the allegations.

The scandal, which erupted in Boston but rippled around the globe as abuse was found in many countries, cost the church billions of dollars in settlements and undercut its moral authority.


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