Q&A with Marci Hamilton

A national expert on child sex abuse, Hamilton comments on the vast Roman Catholic clergy sex abuse crisis.


Marci Hamilton has spent the majority of her law career fighting for the vulnerable—especially children.

A national expert on child sex abuse, the statutes of limitations that make it difficult for victims to pursue justice, and religious defenses that may lead to neglect, Hamilton founded CHILD USA two years ago, a nonprofit academic think tank located at Penn


Its goal, she says: “To collect and produce evidence-based research that helps lawmakers improve our child protection laws.”

Hamilton, a Penn Law alumna and former clerk to the U.S. Supreme Court, is also the Robert A. Fox Leadership Program Professor of Practice, and Fox Family Pavilion Resident Senior Fellow in the Program for Research on Religion at Penn. She’s filed countless pro bono amicus briefs for the protection of children at the U.S. Supreme Court and state supreme courts, and has submitted testimony and advised legislators in every state where significant statute of limitations reform has occurred.

Hamilton, also a leading church/state scholar who’s been studying the Roman Catholic clergy abuse crisis for two decades, spoke with Penn Today about the tragic, most recent grand jury report in Pennsylvania, the importance of changing the statute of limitations, why clergy members should be mandated reporters, and much, much more.

Give me a glimpse into the tragic history of child sexual abuse and the Roman Catholic Church, and when you started studying it so in-depth.

If you go back to the ’80s, what we saw was reporting about a priest by the name of Gilbert Gauthe in Louisiana. That was a scandal where, for the first time, the public learned about a priest who had sexually abused numerous boys. That was shocking. It did make the media, but it also prompted Father Tom Doyle and two others to write to the bishops and say, ‘There’s a disaster coming, and you need to change your course.’ That was circulated among the bishops, but then it was relatively quiet. The public was not aware at that time of this groundbreaking report. The next historical point really is when the 2002 Spotlight report came out from The Boston Globe, and that series showed that it wasn’t just individual priests abusing children, but rather it was in fact a systemic problem. The respected higher-ups in the church like Cardinal Bernard Law were letting child abusers go from one group of children to another by transferring them from parish to parish. That’s when I became most actively involved. 

Last month, the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office released a grand jury report alleging seven decades of sexual abuse and cover-ups by Catholic officials across the state. More than 300 Catholic priests were accused of sexually abusing more than 1,000 children. What did you take from it?

First of all, I think the most important factor that people should remember is that the first major grand jury report on an American archdiocese was released in Philadelphia in 2005. That was led by pioneering District Attorney Lynne Abraham, and she brought me in as an outside consultant. I advised on the report, and was asked to craft the legal recommendations with the team. That report was just one archdiocese, but was approximately 450 pages long. That’s the model that then was replicated again in Philadelphia in 2011 and then in Altoona-Johnstown. And now this new report covers the remaining six dioceses in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania is the only state to study the incidents of sex abuse across every diocese in the entire state.

Do you feel that this is something other states will do?

I think they should. I really credit Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who fundamentally understands that this is the right thing to do. He was not worried about the politics of it. For so long we had politicians who were more worried about the optics of being supposedly in opposition to a church than they were about the children being victimized. Now that his office has produced this extraordinary report, we do see that other states are considering whether or not to follow the same path.

Just curious, do you have any personal connection to the Catholic Church?

 I am married to a Catholic and our children are Catholic. My husband is very much behind what I am working on, as many Catholics are, and trying to find a pathway out of this darkness to a safer place for children.



This is such a difficult subject.

As you can see in my recent op-ed in The New York Times, I’ve just come to the conclusion that only external forces can now make the change. I don’t think that the higher-ups in the hierarchy are capable at this point of the reforms needed to adequately protect children. Lawmakers must step up.

You note in your op-ed about the need to change the statute of limitations for these sex abuse crimes.

I’ve been working on the child sex abuse statute of limitations since the Spotlight report. When that series came out, I was approached by many of the sex abuse lawyers asking me to help with the First Amendment issues, because that was my primary area of expertise. As I worked on those cases, I learned that there would be a case and it would only involve one victim, even though it would mention multiple victims. I would say, ‘Well, why aren’t all of these victims involved in this case?’ And the answer would always be the statute of limitations. It was my conclusion that an arbitrary deadline was at fault; the public didn’t understand what was happening, victims didn’t have a chance at justice. I turned to writing “Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children,” which to this day is the only book on child sex abuse statutes of limitations. I was quite naïve. I thought I’ll write that book, people would see the justice deficit, and we would move onto other issues. As it turned out, there are powerful lobbyists against victims obtaining justice and I’ve been working on this issue ever since here and abroad.

You also believe clergy members should be mandated reporters, like doctors and teachers.

We desperately need to open the statutes of limitations in most of the states for children, and we need to open them for the victims from the past, and we need to revise the expired statutes of limitations. This is true for victims in the home and all youth-serving organizations. But that doesn’t solve all of the legal factors that create the likelihood of secrecy in religious organizations. The risk of secrecy is reinforced by the fact that in roughly half of the states in the U.S., there is no requirement that clergy report suspected abuse, even though they often know more about the family situation and potential abuse than even perhaps teachers or doctors. Add to that the clergy penitent privilege, which religious organizations invoke to avoid revealing what was revealed to them when someone confesses or communicates with a member of the clergy one-on-one. They argue that they have a right  to conceal that information from the authorities. There is this tremendous amount of information that circulates in religious organizations that could protect children. But right now, the way the law operates, it keeps the secrets inside the organization, and that means children are at risk. 

In Pennsylvania, are clergy members mandated reporters?

When we were doing the 2005 grand jury report they weren’t, and in fact, it was very clever what Cardinal Bevilacqua had done to interpret state law that they didn’t have to report. The reason was because they incorporated as an association, and under the laws of the state of Pennsylvania at the time, such an organization was not required to report suspected abuse. So, they conveniently avoided reporting for decades. In 2014, Pennsylvania added clergy explicitly to the list of mandated reporters.

What do you think people of the Catholic faith should be, or could be, doing now?

Catholics need to step up for the victims. They are, after all, Catholics who were sexually abused. They were altar boys, they were altar girls. They were in the system. They were attending Catholic schools. It’s time for all believers to step up and take the side of the children and to let their elected representatives know that they are on the side of the victims, that they want justice for the victims. Right now there are lawmakers who believe that if they take the side of the victims, that the voters will penalize them. But the polls show otherwise. The voters actually favor assisting the victims. What it really comes down to is: Are these senators in these states going to listen to the bishops and continue the patterns revealed in this most recent grand jury report, or are they going to protect the victims? Can they just do the right thing?

Pope Francis released a statement recently, what are your thoughts on that?

 The pope’s statement in my view is largely irrelevant. The question is: What are the American bishops going to do? To some degree, I also think that what they do is irrelevant at this point. For those who believed they would take care of the problem following the Spotlight series and following the Philadelphia grand jury reports, they must now admit that the problem has persisted across the entire state. Further deference to the bishops endangers children. What really matters is what elected representatives do. Some states have done the right thing. CHILD USA has ranked Delaware as the best state in the country for child sex abuse statutes of limitations, in our recent study of changes in the law since 2002 and the Spotlight series. Other states have a lot of work to do, like Pennsylvania and New York. Regardless of the bishops’ views, only lawmakers can change the law to create greater safety for children. I’m looking to our elected representatives to bravely take the side of victims.

Australia is a bit ahead on child sex abuse issues, you’ve noted.

Australia has been remarkable because the federal government held public hearings in which a Royal Commission investigated institution-based child sex abuse across numerous organizations. They looked at the Catholic Church, they looked at Jewish Yeshivas, they looked at sports and schools, they really tried to figure out what was happening with child sex abuse. These hearings were held over a series of years, and they issued an extremely lengthy and detailed report. They collected groundbreaking data. The end result is that they made strong recommendations about eliminating the statute of limitations, about the need for mandated reporting, but most controversially and most recently, they argued that the confessional privilege should be eliminated because it was blocking too much information about abused children from getting to the authorities.

Do you think that is something to be replicated?

I don’t think there’s any question that they are correct. If a clergy member learns about someone who is sexually abusing children, there should be nothing that stands in the way of going straight to the police. The reason is twofold. One is that those who sexually abuse children are cunning, so it’s very likely that they have been abusing children for a while and that they are operating in a way that’s dangerous to the organization’s members. Secondly, most child predators abuse more than one child. So, when clergy hear about one child, and they hear about one perpetrator, they need to understand that time is of the essence. There are likely other children. We know for a fact that perpetrators often abuse into their elderly years, so action needs to be taken as soon as possible to reduce the number of victims there might be.

What makes the Catholic Church stand out in this situation?

The Catholic Church is the largest religious institution in the world. One of the reasons we see so much about this is because of its sheer size. Another part of was originally conceptualized by Dr. Richard Sipe, who was the intellect that initiated the early research into why this is happening. He sadly passed away a couple weeks ago. We will be honoring him at Child USA’s annual awards dinner in November because he was a trailblazer for the victims. His insight was that celibacy was a failure. He documented that clergy including bishops were having sex with housekeepers who were females, there were those who were homosexual, and others who were child abusers. His insight was that one of the main reasons the facts about child sex abuse were suppressed was because there were secrets being guarded across the clergy. They feared disclosure of their own celibacy failures if they did something about the child-abusing priest. He was the one who was truly a genius in this arena, who saw it was a systemic problem long before anybody was talking in those terms. He was a former monk who married a former nun and dedicated his life to studying why children are at risk in his own religious institution. He is an inspiration to those of us seeking the truth about the sex abuse epidemic in the church and elsewhere.