How the statute of limitations applies to priest abuse cases

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Sitting in a conference room at his South Austin law office, defense attorney and former retired District Court Judge Charlie Baird flips through the pages of his legal bible. His finger helps guide him to the sections he's looking for in the newest edition of the Texas Penal Code, which spells out every current law in the state.

Baird, who says he re-reads the 500-plus page book every year, wants to make sure he relays the most accurate information about the complex issue of sexual abuse by priests plaguing our state and country.

"I just feel so sorry for these kids, and I feel sorry for their parents," Baird said. "You put them in the safest place you think they could ever be and they're mistreated and molested."

When the Catholic Diocese of Austin releases its list of clergy with "credible allegations" of sexual abuse against children on Thursday, there will be a lot of legal questions raised. Are criminal charges an option? How does the statute of limitations apply? Who has a duty to report sexual abuse of a child? And what happens if you don't report it?

Baird says putting someone behind bars for sexually abusing children in the Catholic church depends on the law at the time.

"When did that crime occur and could it still be prosecuted?" Baird asked.

The statute of limitations

Prior to 2007, the time limit or statute of limitation for convicting someone ranged from one to 10 years. Therefore, if more than that amount of time has passed since the date or dates of the abuse, then the accuser cannot be criminally convicted.

Some people are also under the assumption that people in certain positions are exempt from reporting sexual abuse. Baird and Stephen Black with the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services both say no one is exempt. 

"The Texas Family Code is very specific about this," Black said. "It even mentions attorneys clergy specifically ... there's no exception. You must report."

It's addressed in the Texas Penal Code, too. Staying quiet is a Class A misdemeanor, but Baird says once three years have passed since the crime, the person who failed to tell authorities can escape prosecution.

Therefore, anyone in the church who knew about sexual abuse, but never told law enforcement could be off the hook if it happened anytime prior to 2016.

Who can investigate?

It's the job of DFPS to make sure no children are in danger, so one might think when the Austin Diocese releases the list of clergy, the agency would start checking to see if those named still have access to children. But, Black says a list of possible child predators is not enough to launch an investigation within Child Protective Services.

"Names, years, diocese — it's still not the specific information we would need to make an assessment," Black said.

The agency is urging anyone who's ever been abused by someone to contact local law enforcement. They would be the ones to get DFPS involved if needed.

Baird says if he were the district attorney, he would impanel a grand jury and bring in those who put the list together to find out what information they have, and then see if that would lead to criminal prosecutions.

Where the Travis County District Attorney's Office stands

The Travis County District Attorney's Office said there is no plan in place to get involved on their own or start working with the Austin Diocese once the list is released. The cases must be reported to local law enforcement, and then law enforcement has to refer the case to their office.

The Austin Police Department child sex crimes division says it is not investigating any current cases involving priests, and still needs victims or those with knowledge of abuse to come forward so they can investigate.

The Texas Attorney General's office also says it does not have the legal jurisdiction to launch an investigation.

List of law enforcement resources in Central Texas

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