Bucks County DA David Heckler’s Mixed Signals on Pennsylvania’s Statute of Limitations for Child Sex Abuse (Justia.com)

As the Pennsylvania House gets closer than it has ever been to meaningful statute of limitations reform for child sex abuse victims, it is interesting to watch how prosecutors across the state are acting. As I discussed in my last column, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office and Pennsylvania Attorney General have issued a series of scathing grand jury reports on seriatim and systematic child sex abuse in major trusted institutions, like Penn State, the Philadelphia Archdiocese, and the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese. In a related though not identical arena, the Montgomery County DA’s race became a referendum on failure to prosecute Bill Cosby for rape, with the win going to the candidate who sided with the rape victims.

Other Pennsylvania district attorneys have hewn to the increasingly outdated position that they owe allegiance to the Catholic bishops, with the Allentown DA most recently expressing this sentiment.

Sadly for the vast majority of sex abuse survivors, the DAs’ discussions about whether to prosecute or to change the statute of limitations have mostly been about the Catholic bishops’ cover up. I say “sadly,” because there are other institutions putting children at risk, and they get swept away in the loud and persistent denunciations of SOL reform by the Catholic Conference.

For this reason, I will examine the strange position Bucks County DA David Heckler has taken with respect to child sex abuse and sex assault victims. His office has a pending grand jury that, if a report were issued, would make the case for SOL reform for child sex abuse victims beyond the Church. Yet the grand jury, which was initiated in the fall of 2014, has yet to issue a report, leaving many victims wondering why.

Bucks County District Attorney David Heckler Sending Mixed Signals on Child Protection

Following the Penn State grand jury report, which followed major Philadelphia Archdiocese grand jury reports, there was a hue and cry across the state for Republican Gov. Tom Corbett to do something. He formed a “Task Force” in 2012 and assigned it the following agenda:

(1) Examine and analyze the practices, processes and procedures relating to the response to child abuse;

(2) Review and analyze law, procedures, practices and rules relating to the reporting of child abuse;

(3) Hold public hearings, accept and review written comments from individuals and organizations;

(4) Submit reports which will include recommendations to improve the reporting of child abuse; implement any necessary changes in state laws and practices, policies and procedures relating to child abuse; and train appropriate individuals in the reporting of child abuse.

Despite the fact SOL reform had been under consideration and discussion in Harrisburg since 2005, nowhere in the assigned agenda of the Pennsylvania Task Force on Child Protection were the words “statute of limitations” uttered, as I discuss here.

Bucks County DA Heckler was chosen to chair the Task Force, and the committee was formed including: William Strickland, President and CEO of Manchester Bidwell Corporation; Dr. Cindy W. Christian, M.D., Director of Safe Place: The Center for Child Protection and Health, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia; Delilah Rumburg, Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center; Dr. Rachel Berger, Member of Child Protection Team at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh; Garrison Ipock Jr., Executive director, The Glen Mills Schools, Glen Mills; Carol Hobbs-Picciotto, MHS, Intake Social Worker, City of Philadelphia; Jason Kutulakis, Senior partner, Abom & Kutulakis LLP Carlisle; Jackie Bernard, Chief Deputy District Attorney, Blair County; and Hon. Arthur Grim, Senior Judge, Court of Common Pleas of Berks County. This was to be sure a distinguished gathering of child individuals and there was every reason to expect some improvements to Pennsylvania law. They diligently pursued the issues on the agenda and did make some very good recommendations to multiple laws.

The Task Force did not avoid the SOL issue altogether. While never obtaining testimony from experts or discussing whether it was a topic that should be added to the agenda, instead Heckler, as a lawyer, assured his fellow Task Force members that the Pennsylvania SOLs for child sex abuse are fine, and they needed to spend no time on it. Accordingly, in the Report, released in November 2012, the Committee spoke approvingly of the Pennsylvania SOLs: “Therefore, the Task Force believes that the current statute of limitations is adequate, given that Pennsylvania is one of the most ‘generous’ states in terms of the length of time within which an action may be commenced.” I will set aside that this statement is actually false: Pennsylvania is decidedly mediocre. Rather, what doesn’t smell right is that ever since, the Catholic Conference repeatedly has cited this line and the Task Force as authority in order to argue against any SOL reform.

Solebury School Grand Jury Investigation…Stalls

While the Task Force was deliberating, information about yet another institutional child sex abuse scandal was filtering into law enforcement in Bucks County, which indicated that the highly respected prep school, the Solebury School, may well have a problem. To Heckler’s credit, his office initiated a grand jury in fall of 2014. Reports are that dozens of women came forward alleging abuse from the very beginning of the school including by its own founder.

Given the ages of the women who came forward it seems clear that at most only one or two of those dozens of women are in statute. That means 90% or more are excluded from legal recourse. Thus, this grand jury report, if issued, could make a compelling case for SOL reform.

Now that SOL Reform seems quite real in Harrisburg, the Solebury School grand jury report remains under wraps. In light of Heckler’s statement to the Task Force and its subsequent report supporting the current mediocre SOL regime, quoted glowingly by the Catholic Conference so often, one must wonder whether Heckler is holding this report until Harrisburg fully considers SOL reform, so as to protect the status quo.

Carole Trickett, age 79, is among those women who have come forward about abuse at the Solebury School and who await the report as part of their healing. “We can hold the school responsible for a crime that was covered up for decades—that needs to be known,” Trickett said. “We were dishonored as children. Now they can show us some honor.”

On the other hand, there is a good reason why the grand jury’s work would have slowed to a crawl.

Det. Ferrari’s Legal Problems Complicate the Issue

The longtime, sole detective for the jurisdiction covering the Solebury School ran into some legal difficulties: “A former Solebury Township detective was sentenced Wednesday [March 30, 2016] to three to 23 months in the Bucks County Correctional Facility after admitting to two thefts and falsifying records to cover his tracks.” That would presumably slow down the process, although his investigation was far from the only evidence available on the sex abuse crimes at the Solebury School.

The Missing Priest Accused of Rape of an Adult in Bucks County

Yet, there is some evidence that Heckler is motivated by over-deference to the Catholic bishops, which makes suspect the delay in the publication of the report while SOL reform moves into high gear following the publication of the Altoona-Johnstown grand jury report. A deeply devout Catholic woman was sexually assaulted at the Shrine of Czestochowa by a priest from whom she was seeking spiritual guidance, and it was reported to Heckler’s office. What did his office do? Let the priest go back to his homeland of Poland.

When you add together the misleading statements about SOL in the Task Force Report, prompted by Heckler, lines frequently relied upon by the bishops to fight SOL reform, the delay in release of a grand jury report that strongly supports strong SOL reform, and the free pass to a Catholic priest accused of sexual abuse, Heckler does not come out smelling like the rose of child protection.

* In the interest of full disclosure, I was a legal consultant to the District Attorney’s Office for the 2005 Philadelphia Archdiocese Grand Jury Report; and I represent the one woman who is in statute with respect to the Solebury School and the woman raped by the Polish priest discussed in this column.

Marci Hamilton

Marci A. Hamilton is one of the United States’ leading church/state scholars and is a Fox Family Pavilion Distinguished Scholar in Residence in the Program for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also the Academic Director and President of CHILD USA, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to interdisciplinary evidence-based research and tracking of medical, legal, and psychological developments to prevent and deter child abuse and neglect, which she co-leads with Dr. Steven Berkowitz, University of Pennsylvania Medical School, and Dr. Paul Offit, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. She holds the Paul R. Verkuil Research Chair at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University, through 2018.