Justice 4 PA Kids Fights Childhood Sexual Abuse

The Malvern-based foundation combats sexual assault against children while making civil and legal recourse more accessible for victims.

”I couldn’t believe what I was finding out,” says Maureen Martinez, cofounder of Justice 4 PA Kids. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)Even in the wake of the most recent wave of child sex-abuse scandals, many parents still believe it can’t happen to their family. Malvern’s Maureen Martinez used to be among them—until the day in March 2011 when she learned that one of the priests at her Malvern church would be going on administrative leave. The Rev. Peter Talocci had helped Martinez through marriage counseling and baptized their children. He was now among the 21 clergymen suspended by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia over allegations of sexual abuse. Even more disturbing: A February 2011 jury report found that dozens of priests remained active in the ministry despite credible evidence against them.

“I sat there shocked,” says Martinez of her initial reaction to the news that rocked St. Patrick’s parish. “I was a lifelong Catholic. I never heard of anyone being sexually abused by priests.”

When the sex-abuse scandal in the Archdiocese of Boston broke in 2002, Martinez had convinced herself that it was an isolated case. But as the scandal grew, so did her concern that the issue was bigger than she—and most others—first thought. “I spent some time doing research, and I couldn’t believe what I was finding out. It bothered me to the point where I didn’t want to go back [to church] ever again. It made me want to do something proactive.”

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Martinez has funneled her rage and disbelief into Justice 4 PA Kids, which she cofounded with Malvern-based financial adviser Bob Riley. Backed by a staff and a board of directors, the coalition of advocates, lawyers, mental health professionals and concerned citizens is committed to eliminating the Pennsylvania statutes of limitations for childhood sexual abuse. Under the current law, victims have until age 50 to bring criminal charges and until age 30 to sue alleged abusers. That may seem like plenty of time, but victims are often unable to speak about the crime for decades.

“Though it’s received enormous attention from these big scandals, this kind of abuse typically occurs within the family,” says Upper Main Line YMCA president Joe Tankle, a coalition board member. “They don’t want to tell anyone that their uncle did this to them.”

Victims also struggle with the question of whether anyone will believe them. “They have to expose someone, and they wonder if someone will think they’ve made it all up,” Tankle says. “The reason the statistics are so underreported is because of the distasteful nature of dealing with it properly.”

The National Center for Victims of Crime reports that one in every five girls and one in every 20 boys are victims of child sex abuse. Those numbers indicate that, over the course of their lifetimes, 28 percent of U.S. kids ages 14-17 will be victimized at some point. And according to a National Institute of Justice report, three out of four adolescents who’ve been sexually assaulted were victimized by someone they know well. As astonishing as these figures are, they represent only what’s been reported.

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On average, victims are 42 before they have the courage to come forward, says Martinez. Many go decades without saying anything. Meanwhile, fear, depression and shame often result in drug and alcohol abuse, and other destructive behaviors.

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That in mind, Justice 4 PA Kids is seeking a one-time, two-year window in which victims could bring civil action in cases previously barred by the current statutes. The coalition is also committed to educating parents and kids in the prevention and treatment of sexual abuse.

Catholic bishops nationwide have lobbied strongly against legislation that would dissolve a statute of limitations for sex-abuse victims. In Pennsylvania, the bills Justice 4 PA Kids backs haven’t left the House of Representatives. 

In response, Martinez has “hit the ground running,” speaking at a press conference in Harrisburg last year and getting the word out at various public outreach and awareness events. 

With the law as it stands now, alleged pedophiles protected from prosecution or civil suits by statutes of limitations cancontinue in positions that afford access to more potential victims. Nothing can be done with these offenders—or employers who shield them—even if the victims of previous abuse come forward. Besides holding abusers accountable for past crimes, the two-year civil-liability window that Justice 4 PA Kids seeks would potentially prevent further harm to kids.

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Thus far, the life cycle of these bills has experienced the same frustrating pattern: After getting stuck in the judiciary committee, they move to the rules committee, where they’re left to linger as the House cycle comes to an end.

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Justice 4 PA Kids continues to put pressure on the rules committee to speed up the process that would move the potential legislation to the Senate, and then on to the governor for his signature. Among the problems the organization has encountered: inspiring the level of public interest necessary to make the issue a top priority in Harrisburg.

This past spring, the Chester County District Attorney’s office assisted with a sex-abuse education program at Upper Main Line YMCA for parents and caregivers. It was attended by just 35 people. “It was incredibly disappointing,” Tankle says. “This is something that’s incredibly important. And yet, people don’t think it’s going to happen to their family.”

For Martinez, the key to a better turnout is getting people to truly grasp the fact that, in 90 percent of the cases, the abuser is someone the family knows well. “It’s not someone jumping out from behind a shed or luring [a child] away from the park while the parent isn’t watching. It’s the person you’re familiar with—the one who’s always around your kid,” she says.

For now, Justice 4 PA Kids continues to forge ahead with lobbying efforts and free public programs to increase awareness locally and statewide. As always, the biggest challenge is getting the public to come forward when it involves something so controversial.

“No one wants to talk about it. It’s a hard topic to digest,” says Martinez. “But we’re working hard to be heard.”

To learn more, visit justice4pakids.com.

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