John Baer: Time for another run at helping Pa. child sex abuse survivors |
Featured Commentary

John Baer: Time for another run at helping Pa. child sex abuse survivors

Survivor of sex abuse Francesco Zanardi, right, flanked by Mark Rozzi, Democratic member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, holds a book titled Divine Justice, reporting on how the Vatican covers up cases of priests who sexually abused, during a press conference at the Italian Lower Chamber press hall in Rome, Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019. Pope Francis opened a landmark sex abuse prevention summit by warning senior Catholic figures that the faithful are demanding concrete action against predator priests and not just words of condemnation.

It was last October when the state legislature, specifically the state Senate, turned its back on victims of child sex abuse. Their own constituents.

This despite the fact just two months earlier Pennsylvania became the epicenter of outrage over such abuse with the release by Attorney General Josh Shapiro of findings from a two-year grand jury probe.

Remember? More than 1,000 children. Likely many more. Abused by 300 clerics. Crimes hidden for decades by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.

And in the ugly face of this, after being handed grand jury recommendations for at least some remedial response, what did Harrisburg do?

Zippo. And I don’t mean they lit it up.

Well, now, with a new legislative session, comes another opportunity.

It comes after the issue went global. After more investigations. More revelations. After the Vatican at least started talking about it (in a thoughts and prayers kind of way). And after other states moved to alter statutes of limitations (SOL) to allow survivors greater access to legal recourse through criminal prosecutions and civil suits.

“We’re definitely close to introducing legislation, maybe by the end of the week,” says Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, the prime force behind the issue in Harrisburg.

The goal is to eliminate the state’s SOL for criminal prosecutions, which now must be filed before a person claiming abuse turns 50; raise the SOL for civil suits (damages) from age 30 to age 55; and, controversially, open a two-year window for older abuse victims to retroactively file civil suits.

The state House passed a similar measure last year. The Senate did not. Rozzi is confident the House can pass it again. Senate reception remains unclear. But, so far, unenthusiastic. The most positive response I could elicit from the Senate is we’ll “wait and see.”

(Rozzi says there might be some tweaking, which he declined to discuss, to make it more attractive to the Senate.)

A sticking point is ongoing concern that retroactive litigation would be ruled unconstitutional because, you know, everyone in politics is a constitutional scholar.

Couple key points.

The issue is moving across the nation. New York just enacted new SOLs and opened a one-year window. New Jersey is moving to allow survivors to file civil suits up to age 55 and opening a two-year window for those previously barred by SOLs.

Penn Law professor Marci Hamilton is a national expert on the issue. She’s also founder and CEO of CHILD USA, a non-profit research group dedicated to preventing child abuse.

She says 35 states currently are looking at SOL reform, more than double last year, because of renewed and now worldwide attention.

Attention, I’d note, that started in Pennsylvania.

“The dam is burst,” she says, “And statutes reform is based on irrefutable logic.”

She also stresses that while all this has come to revolve around the Catholic Church, it applies to all child sex crimes, including by sports coaches, by others in public and private schools, in extracurricular activity such as scouting and in families.

“Catholics are only four percent of all such victims,” Hamilton says.

Meanwhile, since the issue last was before the legislature, Catholic dioceses across the state have established settlement funds to compensate victims.

The Philadelphia Archdiocese, for example, last November started its Independent Reconciliation and Reparation Program. As of mid-February, it paid out or approved payments totaling more than $8.4 million to those claiming abuse by local clerics.

Such funds can lead to monetary redress quicker than litigation. But such settlements likely are smaller than a jury or judge might award.

There are those in the Capitol who suggest the issue has cooled with time and is softened by church compensation funds.

That might be so for some lawmakers. I doubt it’s so for survivors or their families.

And the fact is that Pennsylvania — as it does on so many issues — lags behind the country and the times on this.

Most of the country, 40 states and the District of Columbia, has no SOL at least for felony sex crimes against children. We do. At a minimum that should change.

But for anyone who values decency, the minimum is not enough.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.