Stephen Mills: Don’t tell us it’s too late to get justice

Tribune-Review [Pittsburgh PA]

April 28, 2022

By Stephen Mills

Take it from me, the aftershocks of child sexual abuse last a lifetime. I’m 66, and the sexual violence I experienced at age 13 — a near-death experience, really — can still grip my body and mind when I least expect it.

I thought I’d be released when my abuser died. But that happened 30 years ago. Then I was sure I just needed to find the right meds, the right therapy, the right spiritual practice. No, no and no.

Have I gotten better? Absolutely. I haven’t had night terrors since my 50s. When I get depressed, it rarely lasts more than a day. The chorus of suicidal thinking has quieted dramatically. I’ve got a loving family. I’m the luckiest man in the world. After all, we call ourselves survivors because many of us don’t make it. I’m still here.

Why am I telling you this? Because under Pennsylvania law, someone like me is supposed to be magically healed by age 55 — or at least healed enough to go to court and hold their abuser accountable. After that age, the court door is barred forever. When I was 55, I was cycling through antidepressants and rushing to the ER whenever I mistook a panic attack for a full-on coronary. Go to court? Are you serious?

But I was ready at age 65. What had to happen first? For starters, my mother had to die, because I couldn’t subject her to the public revelation that a summer camp director she idolized was in fact a psychopath who had conned her into handing over her child. I had to peel back a thousand layers of shame that sat atop my abuser’s suggestion that I wanted to be raped. I had to overcome my terror of exposure, rooted in a boy’s certainty that getting caught meant getting killed.

Finally, I had to love and value myself. That last piece came right before New York closed a two-year “lookback” window that allowed any victim to file suit, no matter how long ago the abuse occurred. A half-century after I was assaulted, I brought my case, along with plenty of septuagenarians and octogenarians.

And if my abuse had occurred in Pennsylvania? I’d have no recourse to justice, no chance of closure. Pennsylvania should not be heaping punishment on top of childhood trauma, but that’s the grim reality right now for thousands of men and women.

I share their pain because, for me, it’s personal: After molesting boys in four states, my abuser wound up in Pennsylvania. His name was Daniel Farinella, and he was supervisor of youth programs for the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Pittsburgh from 1982 to 1986. He was also the director of that organization’s Emma Kaufmann Camp.

When I discovered in 1986 that Farinella was still working with kids, I contacted four state agencies in Pennsylvania. The first three gave me the run-around. Finally, the Office of Children, Youth and Family told me that Pennsylvania’s child abuse law didn’t cover social workers and, even if it did, my report of abuse in another state was irrelevant.

Undeterred, I gathered statements from two other victims of Farinella and three corroborating witnesses in multiple states and delivered them to the Allegheny County DA’s office. I even presented the DA with the name of a potential informant who could identify likely, current victims. The police sex assault squad wanted to start investigating. Instead, the DA’s office met with the JCC, and Farinella left his job quietly. No investigation, no prosecution. A serial predator was free to go on abusing kids elsewhere. I was horrified.

I had to conclude, based on what I’d witnessed, that this catastrophic failure by state and local agencies was routine in Pennsylvania. And that’s on top of the toll taken by institutions like the Catholic Church that were shielding abusers from law enforcement. A two-year grand jury investigation in Pennsylvania documented “over 1,000 children victimized sexually by predator priests.”

What kind of system allows children to be sexually assaulted, then lets those criminals loose to attack others and, finally, robs the victims of their last hope for justice because they can’t heal their wounds in time to sue? It’s a deeply immoral, soul-destroying system.

The Legislature should move immediately to take up the bill championed by Gov. Tom Wolf that would open a two-year lookback window for survivors to hold their abusers accountable. Voters should demand that their legislators pass it. Do it for the generation of abused kids — now in their 60s, 70s and 80s — who deserve justice at long last. Do it for those who didn’t survive to get their day in court. And do it for all the communities across Pennsylvania that will only begin healing once the abusers and their institutional protectors are held to account.

Stephen Mills is author of the forthcoming book “Chosen: A Memoir of Stolen Boyhood” and is a CHILD USA ambassador.