Pa. Senate punts on 'window' for sexual abuse victims

Lehigh Valley Live
October 21, 2018

Pennsylvania President Pro Tempore Sen. Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson.

The timing was probably coincidental.

Late Wednesday, the Pennsylvania Senate adjourned without acting on a bill to give adult victims of child sexual abuse their day in court.

On Thursday, the Associated Press broke the news that a U.S. attorney in Philadelphia has launched a federal investigation into the Catholic Church's child abuse scandal, following up on a state grand jury report that ripped open long-held secrets.

The state investigation showed more than 1,000 children had been abused by 300-some priests in six dioceses, including Allentown. It detailed the lengths to which church authorities went to ignore or cover up the crimes.

Prosecutors in other states are opening investigations. The federal probe will examine the extent that children were exploited, determine whether federal laws were broken -- and see whether efforts to hide evidence and subvert justice within the church rise to the level of racketeering.

This is a welcome follow-up to the grand jury findings. Have at it.

The state Senate, however, still doesn't get it.

Instead of adopting a House-passed bill that would open a two-year window for older survivors to sue their alleged abusers and the institutions that protected them, the Senate punted. Senate President Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, offered a compromise -- allowing adult victims a limited period to sue their abusers, but not the church. As an alternative, he supports a church-backed fund to make out-of-court settlements to victims.

Republican House Speaker Dave Reed's response was quick -- no deal without institutional liability. The House passed the bill 171-23, without a provision to protect the church. Gov. Tom Wolf says he's on board with the House version.

It's important that the Legislature get this right.

The current civil statute of limitations says a victim of childhood sexual abuse may file a lawsuit up to age 30. Older victims covered by a previous statute had only two years after they turned 18 to seek justice in the courts.

In addition to naming names and shining a light on the inhumane treatment of kids, the state grand jury investigation spoke to the hidden trauma on those targeted -- self-inflicted emotional limits, shame, fear, anger, emptiness. Those who have suffered for decades truly need a "window" -- not just of court access and potential monetary compensation, but of personal recovery.

Having a church-supported fund makes sense, for those who don't want to go to court. But the fact that many of the accused priests are now deceased argues for a victim's right to seek relief from the church as well. The bill sitting in Harrisburg includes other reforms suggested by the grand jury report, which are not in dispute.

There's still a "window" for Scarnati to call the Senate back to Harrisburg and do the right thing. An overwhelming majority in the House and almost all Democratic lawmakers don't see the problem. If GOP Senate leaders keep up the resistance, the bill will die at the end of this session. A newly seated legislature would have to set the wheels in motion again in January.

Between now and then, voters have their own window -- 13 hours on Election Day, Nov. 6 -- to speak up for the rights of the abused.


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