Lawmakers Have to Deliver Justice to Abuse Victims before Election Day | Editorial
September 28, 2018
Bill Cosby. Harvey Weinstein. The Roman Catholic clergy named in the Pennsylvania grand jury report. Brett Kavanaugh.
They all have two things in common: They've been accused, to varying degrees, of sexual misconduct. And all face accusations involving incidents said to have happened years ago.
Victims deserve to be heard. They deserve justice. But the accused also must be afforded the opportunity to defend themselves, in a court of law if necessary, and not branded as criminals based on accusation alone.
Cosby had his day in court; a jury convicted him and a judge sent him to prison. Weinstein has been indicted and faces criminal prosecution. Kavanaugh and his accuser will appear at a U.S. Senate hearing Thursday.
The problem in nearly every one of these cases is that time degrades memory. While the central incident may be alive in a victim's memory, circumstantial details fade.
What were you wearing? Who was with you? What did the room look like? It's easy to trip up a victim with questions like these -- and just as difficult for the accused to recall where they were on a particular day at a particular time and who else might have been there.
To our minds, the information laid out in the grand jury report creates a special situation in the law. The pattern of cover-up and corruption spanning decades, plus the fact that the victims were children at the time of their assaults, cries out special treatment.
That's why we strongly encourage the state House and Senate to resolve their differences on reforming the statute of limitations for child sex abuse victims.
The state House overwhelmingly passed a proposal Tuesday to give them an opportunity to file lawsuits over claims that would otherwise be too outdated to pursue.
This recommendation was one of four made in the grand jury report made public last month that found more than 300 Roman Catholic clergy abused children over a span of 70 years, all covered up by church officials.
That bill has gone to the Senate, where majority leaders say they're discussing details, including how to handle non-disclosure agreements in civil settlements, changes to rules for reporting suspected child abuse and whether to differentiate between victims of governmental agencies (such as schools) and private ones (such as churches).
Early last year, the Senate unanimously approved a version of the bill that would give victims until age 50 to sue and eliminate the statute of limitations for related criminal offenses, but it did not include retroactivity for civil suits. We think it should.
When victims are children, they require different treatment. In a sexual assault, children don't understand what's happening. They are easily influenced - frightened, even -- by their attackers, and a breach of trust with a respected authority figure can confuse them about whom to trust generally. They often respond to trauma by suppressing details of the assault and blame themselves for what happened. They need time, more life experience and support to be able to come forward later in life, if ever.
The situations of adult victims are more complex. While they, too, often will suppress details of an assault, it's much easier to challenge motives, to ask, "why not report sooner?" and cast blame back on the accuser. Victims who do come forward know they face a gantlet of obstacles, from disbelief and scrutiny of their private lives to public shaming.
Unfortunately, the cultural change needed to help adult victims of sexual assault come forward is not something that can be legislated. But the Pennsylvania General Assembly can help child sexual assault victims now.
State Senate leaders say they'll get a statute of limitations bill ironed out and back to the House by the end of October. House leaders should be standing ready to meet with their Senate counterparts in a genuine spirit of cooperation to get a final bill to Gov. Wolf's desk soon after that.
We're going to expect swift, concrete action, not more talk, as should the voters of Pennsylvania when they go the polls in the Nov. 6 election.