SB 261

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks at a rally seeking justice for child sexual abuse victims Monday, Sept. 24, 2018, in Harrisburg. 

THE ISSUE

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives voted Tuesday to send to the Senate an amended bill that would provide a two-year window during which victims of past child sexual abuse could press civil claims. The House approved Senate Bill 261 by a vote of 173-21. Its fate in the Senate is uncertain, despite the release in August of a grand jury report that found that 301 “predator priests” in six Pennsylvania Roman Catholic dioceses had sexually abused more than 1,000 children over seven decades.

State Rep. Mark Rozzi of Berks County was raped by a Catholic priest when he was 13. Monday, he stood before his colleagues in the state House and asked this blunt question: “Do you stand with victims, or do you stand with pedophiles or the institutions that protect pedophiles?”

We know where we stand.

It’s because we stand with the victims of child sexual abuse that we favor a two-year window in which they could — at long last — have their day in civil court.

For many, the clock had been ticking on their time to press civil claims before they even knew there was such a clock.

Current state law gives a victim of child sexual abuse only until his or her 30th birthday to press a civil claim (and, inexplicably, only until his or her 50th birthday to seek justice in a criminal court). As we’ve said before, this is simply not enough time — it can take decades for victims to make sense of the harm that was done to them as children.

Senate Bill 261 would give future victims of child sexual abuse until age 50 to file civil lawsuits, and would eliminate the criminal statute of limitations for such abuse.

Its retroactive provision would help victims in their 30s and older, who are covered by an old, even narrower, civil statute of limitations than the current one. They had only two years after they turned 18 to press a civil claim. The grand jury called this “unacceptable.” We agree.

We strongly hope the state Senate does the right thing and passes statutes of limitations reform, with a two-year retroactive window. Unfortunately, according to the Associated Press, “only a small handful of senators appeared at a rally in support of the legislation in the Capitol Rotunda on Monday.”

We are asking Lancaster County’s two state senators to heed the voices of the victims whose young lives were shattered by men they considered not just trustworthy but holy.

When they met with the LNP Editorial Board earlier this month, Republican Sens. Ryan Aument and Scott Martin were split on the issue. Martin said he was concerned that a retroactive component would be disallowed by the Pennsylvania Constitution’s remedies clause — state Attorney General Josh Shapiro disagrees. Aument said he was “open to a conversation around retroactivity.”

Aument had been moved by the “heart-wrenching” conversations he’d had with abuse victims and their families.

That’s where the focus must lie.

If the harrowing findings of the grand jury report don’t move the leaders of the state Senate — Majority Leader Jake Corman and Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati — we’re not sure what will.

Shame on them if they kill this bill.

Don’t blame victims

The state’s Catholic bishops oppose civil statute of limitations reform with a retroactive window. Instead, they favor the establishment of a victims’ compensation fund.

In a statement released Friday, the bishops wrote that such a fund would “expedite the process for survivors to present their cases to experienced, compassionate experts who will determine an outcome for each case in a swift, efficient manner. In doing so, the panel will provide a resolution to survivors and allow them to avoid difficult and prolonged litigation.”

A retroactive window, the bishops said, would “inevitably result in bankruptcy for dioceses. Bankruptcy would cripple the ability of a diocese to provide compensation and healing for survivors, while vastly reducing or eliminating social service programs” that serve “some of the most at-risk people in our communities.”

It’s true that programs run by the Catholic dioceses do wonderful work for people in need. But these good works don’t mitigate the harm done by bishops who transferred abusive priests to parishes where they could target other children — and then locked the damning evidence in secret archives to which only they had keys.

To imply that giving victims what they seek would endanger the church’s social programs is, quite frankly, awful. The victims are not to blame for any consequences that befall the church. Church officials are.

Fund would shield church

The bishops said in their statement that the victims’ compensation fund should be “independent,” and should include “a panel of qualified experts to review individual cases and determine financial assistance.” And those experts should be “independent of the influence of ... any institution in which children may have been abused.”

Independent or not, this would still be a program that works in the church’s favor. Yes, victims might get compensated more quickly, but advocates say a quick payout isn’t what victims seek — they want justice in a court of law and transparency from the church that enabled their abuse and protected their abusers.

Last week, the AP noted that judges could order dioceses “to divulge records of child sexual abuse complaints and how they handled them. Plaintiffs also can extract court-approved agreements from dioceses to add procedures or training to better protect children going forward.”

A victims’ compensation fund, the AP pointed out, would protect “diocesan records from court-ordered scrutiny.”

‘Huge debt’ owed

Child sexual abuse in any instance is horrific — but when it’s covered up by the very institution victims were taught to believe in, pain is heaped upon pain. That institution must not be allowed to set the terms by which victims seek recourse.

In a poignant op-ed in this week’s Sunday LNP, St. John Neumann Church member Dennis McMahon wrote that a “huge debt” is owed to victims of priestly abuse.

“We need to fairly compensate and validate every single person and family who has been harmed by these atrocities,” McMahon maintained. “And this should be done openly, transparently and fairly, in a court of law.”

He urged his fellow Catholics to “lobby vigorously in Harrisburg” for statutes of limitations reform that includes a retroactive window.

Making “more whole the lives of those who were victims of these terrible misdeeds will be worth every effort,” McMahon wrote, noting that as state lawmakers consider a “two-year retroactive window, now is a unique opportunity for our church. We may never get such an opportunity again.”

While speaking in Estonia on Tuesday about how the child sexual abuse crisis was driving young people from the church, Pope Francis said, according to the AP: “We ourselves need to be converted. We have to realize that in order to stand by your side we need to change many situations that, in the end, put you off.”

In Pennsylvania, the Catholic bishops could begin by dropping their opposition to the reform victims seek — today. This could spur the state Senate to pass Senate Bill 261. And it would show the church understands that the huge debt it owes to victims is, most of all, a moral one.

Contact state senators:

Sen. Ryan Aument, R-36, Lancaster County. Capitol office phone: 717-787-4420. District office phone: 717-627-0036. Email: raument@pasen.gov.

Sen. Scott Martin, R-13, Lancaster County. Capitol office phone: 717-787-6535. District office phone: 717-397-1309. Email: smartin@pasen.gov.