Letter from the Editor: Clock Is Ticking for Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse in Pa.
By Phil Heron
Delaware County Daily Times
October 15, 2018
|Patty Fortney, center, and Carolyn Fortney, left, Harrisburg-area clergy abuse victims, participate in a news conference alongside Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro Friday Oct. 12, in Norristown, Pa. Shapiro is appealing to legislators to change state law so that civil cases can be pursued in court in decades-old clergy abuse cases. Shapiro also wants the Legislature to lift the statute of limitations for criminal prosecutions going forward. |
Victims of domestic abuse in Pennsylvania are a little safer today.
They received justice.
Now it’s time for another group of victims to get their day in court.
But the jury remains out on whether they will ever get that opportunity.
Let me try to explain.
On Friday Gov. Tom Wolf signed legislation that would go a long way toward safeguarding victims of domestic abuse. And the legislation has Delaware County’s fingerprints all over it.
Not just from victims crying out for protection. But by senators and representatives doing the right thing.
A measure sponsored by state Sen. Tom Killion, R-9 of Middletown, finally made its way through the labyrinth that stands for the Pennsylvania Legislature.
Killion’s bill would change the law as it pertains to firearms and those convicted of domestic abuse. Currently those with a domestic abuse conviction or a final Protection From Abuse order filed against them have 60 days to surrender their guns. The new law changes that to 24 hours. And it also makes a very important change in state law. It mandates that those weapons be surrendered to police or a licensed firearms dealer. The old law allowed abusers to simply hand off weapons to a family member or friend. It’s not hard to see how that would be problematic. Too often an abuser’s rage boiled over, they managed to get their hands on a gun, and deadly circumstances ensued.
Will this new law stop an offender from getting a gun? Not entirely. But it will make it much more difficult, and that’s a good thing. That's the kind of commonsense gun legislation that too often has been absent in Harrisburg.
Sen. Tom McGarrigle’s measure makes it easier for a victim of abuse to get an extension on a Protection From Abuse order.
The law, in particular when it comes to guns, marks something of a sea change for the Pennsylvania Legislature, which has been notoriously gun friendly.
This marks one of the very few instances when gun legislation was not sidetracked by the powerful gun lobby in Harrisburg, despite constant pressure to do so from groups such as Mothers Concerned about Violence and CeaseFirePa.
The measure actually sailed through the Senate last spring, but then got bogged down in the House. It was revived in the latest session and survived votes in both the House and Senate.
Now it’s on its way to becoming law after Gov. Wolf signed the measure.
Pennsylvania just got safer for victims.
But there is another group of victims that have been waiting an even longer time for justice.
That would be the victims of childhood sexual abuse.
Current Pennsylvania law mandates that victims have until age 30 to file civil lawsuits against their tormentors. Unfortunately, many childhood sex abuse experts note that it often takes victims well into adulthood – long past the statute of limitations for filing suit – to come to grips with the horrors inflicted on them as children.
And make no mistake, we are talking about horror stories.
If state residents had any doubt, they were dismissed by the most recent grand jury report that detailed, once again, a shameful pattern of childhood sexual abuse involving parish priests and the Catholic church.
The damning grand jury report details the deviant actions of more than 300 priests who preyed on at least 1,000 children in six Pennsylvania dioceses. And the truth is there likely were just as many child victims who could not be identified.
Even more horrific, this grand jury report mirrored previous ones detailing problems in Philadelphia and the Altoona-Johnstown dioceses, where church officials held to a pattern of covering up problem priests, at times simply moving them from one unsuspecting parish to another. The bottom line? There can be no doubt that church officials’ main concern was protecting the church, not the most vulnerable members of their flock.
After each grand jury report, the drumbeat grew to change Pennsylvania law.
This time is no different. House Bill 261 would make two crucial changes: It would eliminate the statute of limitations to bring criminal charges, and expand the window for victims to sue from age 30 to age 50.
But the bill would only affect future cases.