The 2018 Pennsylvania Attorney General’s grand jury report on the six Pennsylvania dioceses not yet investigated for clergy sex abuse looked like it could move mountains at first. The account of over 300 priests and over 1000 victims certainly has garnered worldwide attention and empathy for the victims and their families. Republican leadership, however, with few days left in the legislative calendar has proved incapable of such empathy. Instead, Senators Scarnati and Corman have produced a cynical “tribunal” that gives bishops and insurance companies what they love most: immunity from discovery. This is faux justice is an insult to every survivor in the state. It is also every child-molesting cleric’s best friend as it keeps their wrongdoing secret and every enabling institution’s best friend as it keeps their wrongdoing secret.
Survivors and advocates have been demanding a “window” since 2005 when the Philadelphia District Attorney released the first comprehensive Grand Jury Report on the Philadelphia Archdiocese. A “window” occurs when lawmakers lift the civil statute of limitations for a set period of time, e.g., Delaware suspended the civil SOL from 2007 to 2009. That gives the victims of the past a chance at justice through the courts. Grand jury reports on systemic child sex abuse are very important in that they introduce to the public the big picture of abuse, suffering and cost, and cover up. But they are at best only lists of cases. The 886-page 2018 Report does not go into depth on any one case; only individual criminal prosecutions or civil lawsuits would produce more information. Due to short criminal SOLs in the state, there were only two priests charged out of the entire voluminous report. It is unconstitutional to revive an expired criminal SOL, making civil lawsuits the only answer for the vast majority of victims. That leads to the need for civil lawsuit access, which educates the public more because it generates discovery of the evidence that the institutions are tightly grasping.
Representative Mark Rozzi, who is also one of the survivors in the 2018 Report, has been leading the charge in the Pennsylvania legislature to get a 2-year window passed. In concert with Republican leadership, he succeeded in the Assembly. Since then, the ball has been in the court of Senate Republican leadership. They devised a cynical response reeking of cowardly lawmakers kowtowing to insurance and Catholic Conference lobbyists.
Instead of a window, Senate Republicans are proposing a “tribunal” with the following hilarious “features,” with my explanation of each in italics:
- The state collects funds from private organizations who volunteer to pay child sex abuse claims through the state. Don’t hold your breath for organizations to line up to declare that they need to be in a sex abuse compensation fund. I am sure that they will be delighted to be part of a state fund that has, see below, a cool state-auditing feature.
- State judges preside over a “tribunal” to dole out the compensation. To call this a “tribunal” is a cold-hearted joke. Victims are seeking justice but they are not getting a “court of justice.” Instead, it’s a judge with a likely underfunded pot of money with no other judicial proceedings.
- The tribunal hires a new state employee as Administrator of the tribunal. Who is paying for the Administrator? I assume this employee for an unnecessary fund is being paid out of the victims’ compensation fund.
- The tribunal audits the organizations paying into the fund. No church, diocese, or parish is going to permit the state to audit its finances. They don’t have to disclose finances as part of their tax returns, and would rather eat light bulbs than let the world know what they are actually worth. If an auditor dares to approach them, they will jump right on the First Amendment to demand their so-called “autonomy” from the law.
- The tribunal lets victims come forward for one year and the proposal does not otherwise extend the civil SOL. How generous of the Senators. Given that the average age of coming forward is age 52, Pennsylvania would stay behind the curve by sticking with its age 30 cap on civil lawsuits.
- A new process (with no statute of limitations) is created for victims to name their perpetrators and have them placed on a state registry with names placed on Megan’s list through the Attorney General’s office. This is the most disingenuous part of the whole thing. Ohio tried this as I described here. It’s unconstitutional to put someone on a Megan’s list without full criminal due process, and the Ohio civil registry has produced a list of 1. Creating an unconstitutional, worthless registry with no statute of limitations is the definition of a void. How tone-deaf do you have to be when victims request a window to justice to devise a proposal that eliminates the SOL solely for a non-functional, unconstitutional provision?
- Establishes a public office that will provide information about the fund. So what? What is needed is information to the public about institutional cover-up and predators. Since the tribunal does not permit real justice—just compensation—it blocks the path to discovery and keeps those secrets in the hands of those who destroyed children’s lives. Absolutely nothing in the proposal would open the way to true justice for the victims, including discovery or a chance to have a jury hear their claims. Nothing in this proposal would yield an iota more information about lurking child predators in Pennsylvania.
I am inclined to say that this proposal is cynical, but let’s call it what it really is: evil. In the face of deep human suffering, lawmakers are pledging to support the status quo and to bury the secrets that keep Pennsylvania’s children at risk. Apparently, Pennsylvania’s Senate Republicans have not received the memo that even in this era, there is right from wrong. It is wrong to prefer predators over children.
What is beyond human understanding is why the successful New York experiment is not being replicated by bishops in Pennsylvania. Starting with New York City’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the New York dioceses have set up privately-run compensation funds that have drawn in numerous survivors to settle their claims, including many from decades in the past. When a window passes in New York–as it should in 2019 –the majority of victims to use the window likely won’t be Catholic. The New York dioceses have helped hundreds of survivors, at rates that are not as high as they would be with ordinary litigation, and the bishops have not been subjected to state supervision or audits. That is by far the more intelligent path than the ugly and dysfunctional hybrid now being considered by Pennsylvania Senate leadership.
It’s not too late for Pennsylvania lawmakers to pass a real window and to let the private entities handle their own compensation funds. That is the path to real justice, not the faux justice now in draft.