How Pennsylvania’s Legislature Gets Away with Not Helping Victims of Child Sex Abuse | John Baer
By John Baer
October 22, 2018
|Steve Mellon / Pittsburgh Post-gazette|
In case you're wondering (and you should be) how your legislature does, or doesn't do, whatever it wants, allow me to refresh your memory.
It's because its leaders maintain a culture to keep you out and keep them in.
It's because this culture puts their interests and special interests ahead of public interests.
The latest example is the state Senate last week walking away from victims of child sex abuse.
This on the final scheduled voting day of the year.
This after a Pennsylvania grand jury in August released the nation's most comprehensive report on decades of abuse and cover-up by Catholic clergy.
And this after that report triggered investigations in other states and a federal probe by the U.S. Department of Justice.
There are complexities in helping victims. Should private entities such as the Catholic Church be treated differently from public entities such as a school district? Does a compensation fund make more sense than open litigation?
But how did lawmakers resolve these complexities?
They walked away. Because they can.
Because their constituents live in a state that discourages democracy and protects incumbency (more on that in a bit).
So, after the Republican-run House voted to open a two-year window for abuse survivors to sue abusers and institutions that hid abuse, the GOP Senate declined to agree.
And sent mixed messages in the process.
Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, an 18-year incumbent from Jefferson County, argued that retroactively allowing civil suits is unconstitutional.
(Current law requires anyone abused as a child to file by age 30. The window would allow older victims to sue.)
That was his firm position.
Until he offered a window for civil suits, but only against individuals, not institutions. In other words, it's fine for victims to retroactively sue clerics (some of whom take poverty vows; many of whom are dead) and other predators, but not the Catholic Church or other institutions.
That would make the church and the insurance industry happy. And the insurance industry, through its PACs, often makes incumbents happy.
Scarnati also proposed allowing institutions (remember, this effort is aimed at all offenders, not just the church) to create compensation funds for survivors to get some money without litigation.
That wouldn't make the trial bar happy. Then again, there's an old saying: The trial bar owns Democrats, and only occasionally rents Republicans.
Then Scarnati pointed to politics.
He said victims lobbying in Harrisburg were "being victimized by politics … this is about elections now. We're going to throw people out of office that didn't do what we wanted them to do."
Isn't that called the democratic process?
Ah, but in Pennsylvania, the democratic process is more a safety net for lawmakers than recourse for citizens.
The average reelection rate for lawmakers over the last 30 years tops 95 percent. Think that's because taxpayers are delighted with their service?
Yeah, me neither.
I think it's because of legislative-level gerrymandering, no limits on campaign spending, and voting laws so lame that they helped win Pennsylvania a national ranking of 45th in electoral integrity in an international study by Harvard and the University of Sydney after the 2016 elections.
We're among a minority of states with no early voting and no no-excuse absentee voting. We've got no same-day registration. And we've got closed primaries, disenfranchising 750,000 registered independents in a state where so many legislative races are decided in primaries.
Oh, and we have no term limits, no recall, and no initiative and referendum, which could encourage greater civic participation, which your legislature doesn't want.
The point is, lawmakers are basically immune from accountability.
Yes, a few Republican seats will be lost this year because lots of Dems are fired up about President Trump, and a Dem year is expected.
Just don't expect Republican majorities in Harrisburg to change.
And, no matter which party is in power, don't expect responsiveness to the will of the people or to needed change until Harrisburg's self-protective culture is seen for what it is, and chipped away.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania victims of child sex abuse are victimized again.