Commentary: Don't discriminate against child-abuse victims

By Sue A. Fugate
April 5, 2016

The thought of child sexual abuse stirs emotions of fear and anger in me as a mother of two. The more I hear about this problem, the more troubled I am at its prevalence and the lack of consistency among institutions and governments trying to deal with it.

The recent grand jury report about crimes that date back as far as the 1950s in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown is the latest revelation. I won't pretend to know the pain survivors of abuse experience or the helplessness their families feel, but I do empathize with their suffering and support their need for healing.

In the name of healing, some legislators propose changes to Pennsylvania law that would waive the civil statute of limitations for some - but not all - abuse survivors. To that, I respond as an attorney. I can't ignore the law, nor should any elected official pledged to serving the public good. After taking a long, hard look at the consequences of such proposals, I believe they should cause serious concern for anyone who believes the law must be applied fairly and equally to all.

Any such legislation would end up creating two classes of child victims in the name of a political quick fix wrapped in emotional expedience. It would also financially penalize innocent families - members of churches and parish communities - who had nothing to do with past evil actions by a criminal few.

The issue at hand is sovereign immunity, which allows public institutions to be treated far more leniently by courts than private ones. Sovereign immunity is meant to protect taxpayer dollars. But applied to the proposed legislation addressing the statute of limitations, it means that survivors of abuse in public schools and other public institutions would be left behind, as if abuse in public institutions is somehow less damaging than in private ones.

That group of survivors who suffered abuse in public institutions is substantial. The crimes against them are no less appalling than those perpetrated by private-school teachers, clergy, or camp counselors.

If we're going to address this issue, we need to look at the facts - and they are deeply upsetting. It has been reported that one in four girls and one in six boys will be subject to unwanted sexual advances in the United States by the time they are 18. This can happen in homes, in schools, and in communities. The abusers take advantage of two things: the vulnerable child and the vulnerable environment.

Most institutions have recognized this and created comprehensive policies and procedures to educate and train employees and volunteers in recognizing and reporting abuse. My children have attended both public and Catholic schools over the years. It was in the Catholic school system, not the public one, that I had to submit to clearances and background checks before I could volunteer for a school activity or attend a class field trip with students. Before the legislature passed new mandatory-reporting laws in 2014, I was already considered a mandated reporter in the eyes of the church.

These policies and others have significantly helped decrease the incidence of abuse in the church. In the United States in 2014, there were six substantiated claims of clergy abuse of current minors. Six is certainly too many, but consider the number found on the website of the Pennsylvania Department of Education, which states that 168 public school educators were disciplined for sexual relations, assault, or consensual sex with a minor between 2008 and 2015. One can only imagine what the scope of those numbers might be through the decades. And yet the current legislation would leave these abuse survivors out of the equation.

The state legislature itself acknowledged the prevalence of abuse in public schools in 2014, when it enacted legislation prohibiting public schools from entering into confidential agreements with employees to terminate employment and requiring all former school employers to complete sexual misconduct/abuse disclosure releases before an employee is hired. Lawmakers clearly know that no entity or organization is solely responsible for abuse. However, they seem oddly willing to turn a blind eye to what is happening when it comes to their own public institutions.

Supporters of the bill who want to give public schools the special protections of sovereign immunity argue that without it, schools would be drained of precious resources that are provided for educating our children. That money, they say, should be spent on needed supports for students and families, assisting special-needs children with services, establishing communities of learners, and the comprehensive programming a public school provides. But that rationale falls radically and cynically short in terms of the grave inequity the bill would create between the survivors of abuse in private institutions and the survivors of abuse in public ones. It's morally outrageous to say one abuse is "worth more" - or, in the case of public institutions, is less grievous - than another.

It is human nature to right a wrong, but current legislative proposals are the equivalent of knowingly and willingly endorsing government-sanctioned discrimination.

Without including a waiver of sovereign immunity for public institutions, legislators who support statute-of-limitations legislation will be picking winners and losers among child-abuse survivors. This is hypocrisy.

Children who were abused in public schools should be treated with the same scrupulous attention to justice, and given the same means to seek recompense, as children who were abused in private ones - and vice versa. Any other path would be a travesty of justice.




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