State should look at legal fixes to ensure ‘little ones’ are never abandoned again

“We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them,” Pope Francis said.

That was the premise of a 2,000-word letter the pontiff addressed to every Catholic this week.

He referenced a recent Pennsylvania, 900-page, grand jury report alleging that 301 Catholic priests sexually abused more than 1,000 children since the 1940s.

However, his message did not stop at condemning the criminality of those priests but held the entire church accountable.

We would not hesitate to call his response heart-wrenching for him and for the vast majority of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

We are not going to pretend to advise any faith’s leadership or its membership how to respond to such reports internally, with one exception.

That is, every faith should join in calls for reviewing the statutes of limitations for such crimes, opening the “civil window” wider to lawsuits and tightening up the law on reporting abuse.

In West Virginia, there is no statute of limitations on sexual assault offenses and first-degree sexual abuse.

But for second-degree and third-degree sexual abuse cases, there is only a one-year statute of limitations.

State Code appears specific enough on its definition of sexual abuse, but the limit it puts on allowing prosecutors to charge child sexual abusers looks to be lax.

We’re unsure why such cases cannot be tried no matter the victim’s age. There are cases of repressed memory where victims may have buried memories of their abuse for decades.

Practically speaking, the law on bringing lawsuits in abuse cases also looks iffy. An adult is given two years to sue, while if the abuse occurred when they were a minor they have two years after they turned 18.

No one is calling for throwing out all such limits on when “injury” lawsuits can be filed, but the window of opportunity to file them should be wider.

Our state’s laws require clergy, among a host of others in positions of authority, to report suspected child sexual abuse cases.

But the Pennsylvania report found some church officials hid behind vague language about exactly what cases should be reported to defend their refusal to report abuse.

Clearly, much legal language cannot be tightened up without expanding it to infinitum. But it cannot hurt to review our State Code’s language on this matter.

No, legal fixes will not remove all the hurdles that keep all such despicable crimes in the dark.

Still, churches and the state need to do more than soul-searching to protect children from predators.

If there is ever to be justice for the “little ones,” churches and the state must step up in a big way.

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