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Why Don’t Priests go to Prison Following Sexual Abuse Charges?

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As more incidents of priest sexual abuse come to light in Pennsylvania and across the country, there is a palpable sense of at least some justice being served for crimes that have long been buried.

But why are more priests not in prison despite damning evidence of their past crimes? After all, most people who are caught for serious abuse crimes end up behind bars. So, what’s different about priests?

Arguably, because of their position of trust and respect in the community, their crimes are even more deserving of extensive jail time.

But it rarely happens. The majority of priests seem to get away with their crimes and go unpunished. We examine the reasons why…

Types of priest abuse

Priests and members of the Catholic clergy have been accused of the following types of abuse in Pennsylvania:

Physical abuse

This is when trauma or injury is caused by physical means.

Sexual abuse

This is when sexual acts are forced on another person, including unwanted touching, kissing, and other sexual actions.

Sexual assault

This includes any action that involves forced sexual actions, including rape and sexual abuse.


Rape is a sexual act that involves penetration of another person.

Child abuse

This is abuse targeted at those under the age of 18 in Pennsylvania.

Adult abuse

This is abuse targeted at anyone over the age of 18 in Pennsylvania.

Bear in mind that many cases of sexual abuse and many other types of abuse go unreported in Pennsylvania.

Statutes of limitations for sexual abuse in Pennsylvania

Statutes of limitations assign a certain time after which rights cannot be enforced by legal action or offenses cannot be punished.

So, if you committed a crime so many years ago that it falls outside the statute of limitations for that crime, the government cannot prosecute you. Some crimes have no statute of limitations, though, such as murder in the first degree. This means that the perpetrators can be prosecuted at any time.

Similarly, if you caused damages to another person but it happened so long ago that it falls outside the statute of limitations, that person cannot sue you for damages.

The statute of limitations varies for each crime and depends on the state in which the case is filed. In many states, victims of sexual crimes recently had the periods extended for which they could file claims. This was due to a recognition that many young victims of such crimes never reported incidents until many years later.

In 2019, the Pennsylvania legislature eliminated the criminal statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse for new cases. This did not help historical victims of abuse, however, partly explaining why so many priests have escaped prison.

The statute of limitations for sexual abuse victims to bring civil cases before the courts in Pennsylvania was, however, increased from the age of 30 to the age of 50 in 2019. This applies equally to cases involving the church, schools, medical providers or another organization responsible for the abuse.

While the increase in age was welcomed in Pennsylvania, it did not apply retroactively, so everyone who was time-barred from bringing a case against priests before 2019 was still time-barred after the limit was increased.

Many groups, including the lawyers at Andreozzi & Foote, PC have been campaigning for a two-year window suspending the statute of limitations for all survivors of sexual abuse to pursue civil cases.

What are the difficulties in determining liability in priest abuse cases?

Besides the statute of limitations issues, another challenge for child sexual abuse victims of the Catholic Church is determining liability in civil cases.

Many cases of abuse were covered up by the leadership within a particular church/diocese failing to report it or actively trying to hide it. So, when you take on individual abusers, you are usually also taking on the Catholic Church and trying to prove that the leadership was liable.

The Catholic Church is such a complex, multi-layered and intimidating organization that filing a case against it can be a daunting task.

Witness testimony and victim testimony may present specific challenges, not to mention the reality that many instances took place years, if not decades ago.

The Catholic Church actively prevents priests from going to jail

Despite plentiful media coverage in recent years, efforts by the Catholic Church to sweep sexual abuse allegations under the rug persist.

The majority of people in Pennsylvania are still unaware of how widespread the issue is or the efforts of the Catholic Church to actively prevent the terrible publicity of priests going to prison for their crimes.

The legendary wealth of the Catholic Church means that many resources can be employed to help escape liability for past crimes. In particular, it has traditionally used two strategies to prevent jail time for priests:

Moving priests and clergy (“passing the trash”)

One of the favorite ploys of the Catholic Church in dealing with allegations of abuse was to simply move the abuser to another parish, sometimes hundreds of miles away. The obvious effect of this was to simply move the abuse to another area (sometimes called “passing the trash”).

Abusive priests were sometimes sent to “psychological counseling” clinics run by the Church itself. So, rather than report the abuse, the Church dealt with it internally, helping to explain why few abusive priests faced prison time. Unfortunately, this also perpetuated the abuse.

Silencing sexual abuse victims

The extraordinary wealth of the Catholic Church enabled it to make countless large out-of-court settlements with abuse victims in return for signing nondisclosure agreements (NDAs). This means that victims are legally barred from speaking about their case or their settlement.

One report claims that between 1980 and 2002, the Church paid over $75 million to cover up abuse, with most settlements related to cases involving multiple instances of abuse.

What can you do as a victim?

As a victim of abuse, telling your story can help prevent further abuse. Regardless of how long ago the clergy abuse took place, there are people who can help you.

Even though most Catholic priest abusers never see a prison cell, you may be able to seek a measure of justice from the civil justice system in Pennsylvania.

If you have a priest abuse case you want to discuss, the sexual abuse lawyers at Andreozzi & Foote, PC offer a free and confidential consultation, during which we can discuss your concerns and advise you of your legal options, or you can call us directly at 866-311-8640.

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