Frank Finnegan was 7 years old when he was first molested by a local priest. As a child, he didn’t know how to prevent the repeated assaults, which went on for almost two years, or how to go about reporting the crime. So, like most child sex-abuse victims, he kept quiet. It wasn’t until he was in his late 40s, preparing to send his own children off into the world, that the memories of the trauma became impossible to ignore. “It’s like there was finally room in my brain,” says Finnegan, who now works as a truck driver. So he contacted a lawyer, braced himself and filed suit.
But Finnegan was too late. In Pennsylvania, where he grew up and raised his own family, victims of child sex abuse have only until they turn 30 to bring a civil case. (They have until they turn 50 to pursue criminal charges, but that didn’t help Finnegan, whose abuser was long dead.) As a result, Finnegan’s case was thrown out–not on the merits, but because of the time it took to come to terms with the trauma. There was no avenue to appeal. No one would be held accountable for what happened to Finnegan, now 57. “It’s not right,” he says. “Why is this legal?”
It may not be, in some states, for much longer. Many state lawmakers have opened the door in recent years to belated criminal prosecution, and now several are moving to allow civil suits in decades-old cases. Fifteen states took up bills this year that would change statute-of-limitation laws, making it easier for victims of child sex abuse to seek justice, according to Marci Hamilton, the CEO and academic director of Child USA, a research and advocacy organization. Two states–Michigan and Hawaii–passed such legislation.
The movement to roll back time limits for child sex-abuse lawsuits has been fueled by recent headlines. The sexual abuse of young women by former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, allegations of abuse by staff and teachers at top private schools, and the Pennsylvania grand-jury report that described a systemic cover-up of child sex abuse by the Catholic Church are all feeding the fury. From late August to early September, state attorneys general in Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico and New York demanded records from Catholic dioceses as part of new investigations into child sexual abuse.
But the fact that the perpetrators often operate under the cover of large institutions means passing new legislation isn’t easy. Powerful constituencies–including the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America and the insurance industry, among others–have all lined up to fight bills that could help the many victims of decades-old crimes find justice.
Current state laws governing child sex-abuse cases are all over the map. In Alabama, the age cutoff for victims to file a civil suit is 21. In New York, which has the second largest Catholic population in the U.S., it’s 23. Delaware has no age limit at all. Each of the bills before the 15 state legislatures this year is different, too, according Hamilton’s research. In Michigan, lawmakers passed a narrow bill in May extending from 19 to 28 the age at which victims may file civil suits. In New York, lawmakers failed to pass a bill that would have extended the age at which victims could file criminal charges to 28 and civil suits to 50. Governor Andrew Cuomo has vowed to push for the bill next term. Pennsylvania, which is nearing the end of its legislative session, is considering a bill that would give child victims until age 50 to file civil suits.
A key provision in both the New York and Pennsylvania bills, and the focus of much of the fight nationwide, is what’s known as the “look-back window.” It creates a short period of time, usually one to three years, in which people like Finnegan who have aged out of the statute-of-limitation cutoffs can retroactively file suit. Over the past few years, an intense lobbying battle over these windows has erupted in state capitols.
The New York State Catholic Conference, which represents Catholic bishops in the state, spent $1.81 million from 2012 to the beginning of 2018 lobbying the New York legislature, which is considering a bill with a one-year look-back window, according to an investigation by the Buffalo News. The Catholic Conference in Pennsylvania spent $3 million from 2014 to June of this year, according to state records.
In some states, including Georgia and Michigan, lobbyists have made the case that look-back windows are inherently unfair because victims’ memories become less reliable over time. In addition, many of the clergy or scout leaders they’re accusing of abuse are long dead. The point of statute-of-limitation laws is to protect the accused from spurious claims made after memory or evidence may no longer be considered reliable. But there is evidence to suggest victims, like Finnegan, take decades to come to terms with their abuse. A 2014 study from Germany, which included 1,050 subjects, found that men and women were 52 years old, on average, when they first reported child sex abuse. There’s no comparable U.S. study.
Other opponents of look-back windows have made an overtly financial case, arguing that such provisions would result in nothing more than a payday for trial lawyers. In New York, Timothy Dolan, Cardinal and Archbishop of New York and the former president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, has suggested that measures allowing retroactive lawsuits would crush the church with expensive litigation. During a visit to the state capitol in March, Dolan described the look-back window as “toxic” and “strangling.”
Church officials see Minnesota and Delaware, two states that have passed laws with look-back windows, as cautionary tales. Both states saw an uptick in lawsuits alleging child sex abuse, including hundreds against Catholic clergy, after the window opened–roughly 850 in Minnesota and more than 100 in Delaware. Dioceses in both states, facing the prospect of paying steep settlements to victims, claimed they had no choice but to file for bankruptcy. Victims’ lawyers argue that Catholic dioceses around the country have filed for bankruptcy as a legal tool to shield church assets from settlements.
Top lobbyists for the church and insurance industry in Pennsylvania make another argument: look-back windows violate the state constitution. “It’s not constitutional to require us, as insurers, to cover risk that we didn’t know we’d have,” Sam Marshall, the CEO of the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania, told TIME. Church attorney Matt Haverstick says the point should end the discussion: “You just can’t pass a law violating the constitution,” he said.
None of the major groups opposing look-back windows has been as active as the Catholic Church. That may be because it is in a uniquely vulnerable position. The recent grand jury investigation in Pennsylvania–along with similar investigations in the state in 2005 and 2011–has revealed that the church keeps extensive, secret archives of all past allegations against clergy members. These documents can be subpoenaed in criminal and civil cases.
Pennsylvania may become something of a bellwether as it considers these questions this month. In 2016, the state house passed a bill with overwhelming support that expanded the statute of limitations for filing new cases until victims turned 50 and created a two-year look-back window. Earlier this year, the state senate responded with a different bill that extended the age at which victims can file civil suits but omitted the look-back window.
Pennsylvania state representative Mark Rozzi, who sponsored the house version, says he won’t support a bill that doesn’t include a look-back window. “This is plain and simple about doing the right thing,” he said. But Rozzi, who has unsuccessfully pushed a version of his bill since 2013, knows well how difficult the political fight will be. “When my bill passed the house last time, they hired 39 lobbyists to lobby 50 senators,” he says of the church. Amy Hill, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, would not comment on its lobbying efforts. “We are devastated and outraged by the revelations of terrible sexual-abuse crimes committed in the Catholic Church,” she wrote in a statement to TIME. “The time to discuss legislation will come later.”
Advocates for victims of child sex abuse say the time is now. Just as 41 states eliminated at least some felonies from their statute-of-limitation laws for criminal allegations after a 2002 Boston Globe investigation revealed widespread church abuse, the current revelations are driving changes in civil cases too. Rozzi, who was raped by a priest when he was 13, says the state is at a tipping point. “People are fed up with the hypocrisy,” he says. “Either you’re protecting your bank account or you’re protecting kids who got abused. It’s not a tough choice.” Finnegan is less upbeat. “It’s all about money. Where are the dollars coming from?” he asks. “The church with all their lobbyists and law firms? Or people like us?”
This appears in the September 24, 2018 issue of TIME.