Catholic church sex abuse victims deserve justice. Don’t let the election interfere

Morning Call [Allentown PA]

September 15, 2022

By Paul Muschick

A few weeks ago, Gov. Tom Wolf and legislative leaders announced they had reached a bipartisan agreement to finish the long overdue job of giving long ago victims of child sex abuse an opportunity to seek justice.

Let’s just hope their pledge is honored after November’s midterm election. Nothing ever is guaranteed in the Capitol as political winds shift.

Democrat Wolf and the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate and House agreed to prioritize legislation early next year on a referendum. It would ask voters if the state Constitution should be amended to allow a two-year window for child sex abuse victims to sue, despite the statute of limitations having expired.

If the plan is carried out, voters could see the referendum on a ballot in one of next year’s elections.

The referendum should have occurred last year. Lawmakers approved the necessary legislation, but the Pennsylvania Department of State derailed it by failing to meet the advertising requirements to inform voters about what they would be voting on.

So lawmakers had to start all over.

A referendum requires that identical legislation be passed in successive legislative sessions. The first bill was approved last year. The second will be voted on early next year, according to the deal announced by Wolf and legislative leaders on Aug. 31.

“Victims deserve justice, and I’m confident Pennsylvanians will deliver justice when this question is put to the voters as a constitutional amendment,” said Democratic House Leader Joanna McClinton of Philadelphia.

“Without question, all victims of childhood sexual abuse should have the ability to face their abusers,” said Senate Republican Leader Kim Ward of Westmoreland County.

I hope voters will approve the amendment, if lawmakers stick to their commitment and allow a vote. Elections sometimes poison good intentions.

Every state representative and half the state’s senators are up for reelection in November. That could mean new faces would need to be persuaded to go along with the plan.

There shouldn’t be turnover among the leadership who are in charge of corralling the necessary votes, though. That’s a good sign.

Only two of the four legislative leaders who made the pledge are up for reelection. And only one of them, House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, has an opponent.

Chances are that all four will be in office again next year and likely to retain their leadership positions.

The wild card could be Doug Mastriano, the Republican senator from Franklin County who is running for governor.

The governor doesn’t have to sign off on legislation for referendums. But a governor can influence whether a vote is held, and what the result of that vote is.

I sought Mastriano’s position on the referendum but did not receive a response from his office. That’s typical, as he rarely acknowledges the media.

Wolf is term-limited and won’t be in office next year. The Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Josh Shapiro, supports a referendum. It was his work as attorney general that got us to this point.

His office oversaw a grand jury that investigated seven decades of allegations of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests, and the subsequent attempts by the church and others to cover up the abuse.

The grand jury report released in 2018 disclosed accusations that hundreds of priests across Pennsylvania sexually abused more than 1,000 children.

One of the grand jury’s recommendations was to open a retroactive “civil window” to allow victims who have been barred by the statute of limitations to sue. The law now gives people 12 years to file a complaint after they reach age 18.

The referendum legislation doesn’t mention that scandal, but that’s what drove it.

Children who were abused in any setting would be eligible. That means those abused in the Boy Scouts scandal, by teachers, by youth sports coaches and by others could benefit, too.

Those who take office after the election should honor the pledge that was made to help them. And I hope voters would overwhelmingly approve a referendum.

Morning Call columnist Paul Muschick can be reached at 610-820-6582 or