Champions for Children
Philadelphia Inquirer [Pennsylvania]
November 17, 2006
Who will watch over the youngest victims of sexual abuse?
It took more than a year after a Philadelphia grand jury report on sexual abuse by Catholic priests, but Harrisburg lawmakers in the state House of Representatives finally answered that question this week: They will.
Joining the Senate, which acted in June, House members on Wednesday gave their overwhelming support to key changes in Pennsylvania's child sex-abuse laws.
The legal overhaul - now requiring the Senate's concurrence on amendments - seeks to close several troubling loopholes in state law.
It was as a result of a loophole on reporting abuse allegations that officials in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia managed to duck responsibility for rousting priests who abused parish children.
Church leaders such as former Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua received reports of priests who molested children, but they didn't alert authorities because state law did not require reporting second-hand allegations.
That deeply cynical, hear-no-evil approach to the officials' stewardship of their flock was exposed 14 months ago by the grand jury.
Jurors amassed "overwhelming evidence that two former cardinals and their aides concealed and facilitated" the priests' child abuse, according to two former Philadelphia prosecutors who worked on the case. But the two came away frustrated, concluding that lax reporting requirements and the statute of limitations ruled out criminal charges.
So the jury's most important legacy may prove to be its call for legal reforms - now adopted, in large part, by the House.
The House-approved measure expands the mandate of employers and supervisors to report allegations of child sexual abuse to authorities, grants abuse victims until age 50 to seek justice, and requires background checks of more adults who work near children, among other changes.
There had been calls to remove the statute of limitations on prosecuting child sexual abuse entirely. But raising the reporting age from 30 to 50 is a meaningful improvement. Victims often require decades to face up to their abusers.
The expanded reporting time should mean that fewer abuse allegations will remain concealed, as was the practice for decades in the Philadelphia archdiocese.
These legal safeguards would be prospective, applying only to future abuse cases. On redressing past wrongs, to their shame church leaders across the state - and nation - continue to oppose a special one-time, one-year window allowing lawsuits for decades-old cases of abuse. Until lawmakers step up to offer past victims a measure of justice, their work will be unfinished.
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