No Winners Among Child Abuse Victims
By Sue A. Fugate
April 18, 2016
The thought of child sexual abuse, past or present, stirs fear and anger. 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 a survivor of abuse experiences or the helplessness their families feel, but as a mother of two, I do empathize with their suffering and support their need for healing.
In the name of healing, some legislators have proposed to change Pennsylvania law and, in effect, open a window 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.
Unless we face some uncomfortable truths, the Legislature will end up creating two classes of child victims in the name of emotional expedience. It will 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 for public institutions to be treated far more leniently 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 will be treated as somehow less violated than in private ones.
That group of survivors is substantial, but currently ignored. The abuse they suffered is no less appalling than that perpetrated by private school teachers, clergy, or camp counselors.
The hard reality is that children are sexually abused far more than anyone cares to admit. If we’re going to address this issue, we need to look at the facts — and they’re 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. These children can be found everywhere and abused anywhere — in their homes, their schools and their communities.
Most institutions have recognized this and created comprehensive policies and procedures to educate and train employees and volunteers to recognize and report abuse. My children attended both public and Catholic schools over the years. It was in the Catholic schools, not the public, that I had to submit to clearances and background checks before volunteering at school activities or attending class field trips. Before the Pennsylvania Legislature passed new mandatory reporter laws in 2014, I was already considered a mandated reporter by the Church.
These policies and others have significantly helped decrease the incidents of abuse occurring in the church. In the U.S. in 2014 there were six substantiated claims of clergy abuse of current minors. Six is certainly too many, but compare that number to data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education whose own report notes that 168 public school educators were disciplined for sexual relations, assault or consensual sex with a minor in just the years between 2008 and 2015. And yet, some lobbyists and lawmakers think it’s perfectly acceptable to leave these abuse survivors out of their equation.
Supporters who want to give our public schools sovereign immunity’s generous protections argue that without it, schools will be bled of precious resources. But that rationale falls cynically short in terms of the inequity it creates 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.
Lawmakers clearly know that no one entity or organization is solely responsible for abuse, and their own public institutions are among the serious offenders.
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 the same means to seek recompense, as children who were abused in private ones. Any other path is unjust.
Sue A. Fugate is an attorney residing in Yardley. She has a BA from the University of Pittsburgh and a JD from the University of Pennsylvania Law School.