Expanding abuse victims' Pa. rights deserves support
March 28, 2016
STATE REP. Mark Rozzi has been pushing for years to change state laws in an effort to broaden the rights of victims of child sex abuse, to little effect.
Part of the problem may have been that the issue had been fading in the public consciousness. The subject was making major headlines around 15 years ago, when a scandal erupted over sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church and the mishandling of such cases by religious leaders, and then more recently with the Jerry Sandusky case involving Penn State. Since then the church has insisted it learned from its mistakes and that the days of protecting predator priests are long over, and changes were made to child abuse laws in response to the Sandusky situation.
But the issue is back at the forefront thanks to an investigation by the state attorney general’s office that alleged terrible corruption in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese. Rozzi, himself a teenage victim of sexual abuse by a priest, is looking to use the news as impetus to win support for his effort.
A grand jury found that two bishops who led the diocese helped cover up the sexual abuse of hundreds of children by more than 50 priests and other religious leaders over a 40-year period starting in the mid-1960s. The report went on to portray the church as holding such sway over law enforcement that it helped select a police chief. One diocesan official told the grand jury that the police and civil authorities would often defer to the church when priests were accused of abuse, the report said. Following the grand jury report, three ex-leaders of a Franciscan order were charged with allowing a friar who was a known sexual predator to take on jobs that enabled him to molest more than 100 children.
Rozzi, a Muhlenberg Township Democrat, makes a strong point about how the Altoona revelations emphasize the importance of his legislation. He wants to eliminate time limits on when victims can sue their abusers and allow victims already past those limits to be given two years to file lawsuits against their abusers and related institutions. The bill also would remove the criminal statute of limitations on future sexual abuse cases.
Allowing these lawsuits is about more than seeking financial restitution. It’s about giving legal recourse to victims who often needed many years before they were ready to talk about what happened to them. They should have a chance to seek justice and exposure of those responsible for their plight. In the Altoona case, investigators found church records documenting the abuses they reported. Who is to say what else might be uncovered if civil attorneys are given a chance to delve into these cases?
We understand the point of view of those who wish to move forward and put all this ugliness in the past. It is our fervent hope that new safeguards that have been put in place will mean there won’t be nearly as many victims seeking justice in the future. But the Altoona case is evidence enough that there may well be much more to be revealed about the horrors of the past and about those who are still living and played some role in enabling or covering up appalling crimes by people in positions of trust.
We support Rozzi’s efforts to eliminate or at least extend the statute of limitations in these cases, to encourage more victims to come forward and for law enforcement to get involved where appropriate. It is clear we are nowhere near the point where this matter can be put behind us.