New Law Expands Sex-Abuse Sanctions
Gov. Rendell Is Expected to Sign the Measure, a Response to the Grand Jury Report on Abuse of Children by Clergy
By David O'Reilly and Julie Shaw
Philadelphia Inquirer [Pennsylvania]
November 22, 2006
Heeding the call of the Philadelphia grand jury that investigated clergy sex crimes, the Pennsylvania Senate yesterday approved broad expansions of laws protecting victims of childhood sex abuse.
The bill passed unanimously, and a spokesman for Gov. Rendell said he expects to sign it into law.
Senate Bill 1054 closes loopholes for reporting abuse, and criminalizes the concealing of abuse by an abuser's supervisors. The House version passed last week, 191-1.
The bill also extends, from 30 to 50, the age by which future victims can bring criminal charges against an abuser; expands the state's "Megan's Law" reporting requirement; and requires criminal-background checks of workers at residential foster, adoptive, and family day-care facilities.
Many provisions in the bill were recommended more than a year ago in the grand-jury report on past sexual abuse of children by clergy in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The 418-page report offered heartbreaking detail of abuses of children by priests, and cover-ups by church higher-ups. But its authors said state laws prevented them from bringing charges against all but one of 63 priests, living and dead, who were named in the report.
The legislation had a rocky ride, however, and seemed doomed three weeks ago when the General Assembly broke for elections without a House vote.
Rendell's spokesman, Chuck Ardot, said yesterday that the governor "supports the legislation in concept" and will sign it "assuming it contains no surprises."
District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham said the legislature "has given every child a huge Thanksgiving gift." She called it "a sea change" in how sex-abuse cases will be handled.
Abraham, who held a joint news conference with John Salveson, a leading advocate of tougher state laws to protect children from sex abuse, said the new legislation was extremely important because of the loopholes it closes. "No longer does the child need to be the one to report the crime," Abraham said. "Also, no longer does the crime need to occur in a child's home for it to be punished. It can happen anywhere."
The legislation also casts a "wider net of responsibility," she said. "It affects people of other religious faiths, not just the Roman Catholic Church, as well as teacher aides, janitors, and prospective foster parents, among other people who come in contact with children."
Salveson, who has started a group called the Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse, called the bill's passage "a major victory for Pennsylvania's children" and thanked all the victims of childhood sex abuse who - like Salveson himself - came forward and told their stories.
But he said "there's more work to do," in the area of civil law, to expand the number of years in which the state allows a sex-abuse victim to bring a lawsuit for long-ago abuse.
"It's a nice way to begin a holiday that's all about thanks," said Cathleen Palm, executive director of the Protect Our Children Committee, an advocacy group for child-welfare laws.
The bills have had a stormy history. Lawmakers, legislative aides and other advocates for the bill had expressed frustration that the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, which represents the states's 10 Catholic dioceses, refused to endorse changes in the law.
In August, two former prosecutors who led Abraham's grand-jury investigation wrote an open letter to Cardinal Justin Rigali saying it appeared the Catholic leadership was subverting legislation it claimed to endorse. Rigali's spokesperson disputed this.
Then, on Oct. 24 - two days before the legislature's election break - an unsigned memo circulated among lawmakers complaining that parts of Senate Bill 1054 were too "expansive" and that they targeted the Catholic Church. It warned against a "rush" to adopt the bill.
Paper-clipped to the memo were the business cards of Robert J. O'Hara Jr., executive director of the Catholic Conference, and of Frank "Chick" Tulli Jr., a conference lobbyist. The House leadership pulled the bill from an expected vote the next day, provoking protests from advocates who predicted that it was dead this session.
Tulli later said he had "no knowledge" of the memo. O'Hara deflected questions about it, saying that anyone could have clipped his and Tulli's cards to the memo.
Yesterday, however, Donna Farrell, spokeswoman for the Philadelphia Archdiocese, said the archdiocese "applauds" the legislature's action.
Passage of S.B. 1054 "will increase the responsibilities of individuals and institutions in the reporting of child-sexual abuse and the protection of all of God's children," Farrell said in a prepared statement.
State Rep. Dennis M. O'Brien (R., Phila.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, yesterday compared the bill to the "Megan's Laws" and similar measures enacted in many states, calling it "the Victims' Law."
"This is the public's way of way of saying to [abuse] victims that it's OK to come forward, that we'll understand," said O'Brien, who pushed hard to get the bill enacted.
In recent weeks the General Assembly has also adopted bills that made Pennsylvania compliant with the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, approved a standardized rape kit for use in sexual-assault investigations, and doubled the minimum sentences for serious sexual offenses against minors.
If Rendell signs S.B. 1054, it will bring Pennsylvania's reporting laws closer to New Jersey's, which require that any person who has "reasonable cause" to believe a child has been abused must report it to state child-welfare officials or face up to 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. New Jersey has no statute of limitations for filing criminal charges in sex crimes.
If Senate Bill 1054 Is Signed Into Law...
If signed into law by Gov. Rendell, the bill will:
Close a loophole in the mandatory-reporting law. Until now, anyone designated a "mandatory reporter" of child sex abuse was obliged to report abuse to civil authorities only if a victim reported abuse directly to him or her.
Make it a criminal offense for a person to knowingly conceal or facilitate sex abuse by a person whom they employ or supervise.
Extend to age 50 the time by which a sex-abuse victim may bring criminal charges against his or her abuser. The existing limit is age 30. The extension applies only to abuse after the bill becomes law, and does not extend the time a victim can sue an abuser.
Require criminal-background checks for workers in foster, adoptive and family day-care homes.
Require much more detail about sex offenders to be listed in the "Megan's Law" database, including a physical description of the offender and the make and license-plate number of his car.
Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-854-5723.
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.