If the State Senate passes it, which isn’t necessarily a given, it would be a welcome legislative response to the state’s recent grand jury report which found more than a thousand victims of sex abuse at the hands of more than 300 Catholic priests over the course of several decades.
Senate Bill 261 would do the following if it’s signed into law:
- Get rid of all statutes of limitations on child sexual abuse cases.
- Extend the deadline for civil cases against abusers and those supervising them to age 50. (It’s currently 30.)
- Create a two-year window for past victims to sue their abusers if they’re currently timed out of the legal system due to a statute of limitations.
That last one is a really big deal, because it would allow victims who are much older today — and who have a much clearer understanding of what happened to them — to sue their abusers. Many of them are speaking out these days but have no legal option available to them because the crimes occurred decades ago. Now, they could do something about it.
Prime sponsor Rep. Mark Rozzi, a Berks County Democrat who himself was abused by a priest in his youth, praised his colleagues for taking this step in the face of continuing uncertainty over the bill’s fate in the Senate.
“All victims ever wanted was an opportunity for justice, to be able to walk into that court of law and expose their perpetrators. And maybe we can protect future kids from being abused,” Rozzi said.
“That’s our job here, in this Commonwealth… So members who voted in support of this — go home and be proud and let your people know that you stood with victims. You did not stand with pedophiles or the institutions that will protect those pedophiles.“
This is such sensible legislation… so why isn’t its passage a foregone conclusion?
The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference didn’t say anything after the State House passed the bill, but they did raise concerns last week. The biggest concern? Money. The creation of a two-year window for victims who are currently shut out of the legal system would lead the Church into bankruptcy.
“Bankruptcy would cripple the ability of a diocese to provide compensation and healing for survivors, while vastly reducing or eliminating social service programs that greatly benefit all Pennsylvanians,” the statement said.
You can’t let older victims sue because that would hurt our ability to pay off younger victims!
Here’s an idea: If you’re too worried about compensating rape victims for what priests did in the past, maybe your organization needs to shut down. Maybe the social benefits offered by the Church aren’t worth the cost of thousands of abused children with no legal recourse.
The Church had it’s own solution to the problem:
The church proposes creating or participating in an independent, voluntary program that will include a panel of qualified experts to review individual cases and determine financial assistance.
Using paid lobbyists, the church sought legislative support for a victims fund and panel.
“We cannot undo the harm that childhood sexual abuse has caused, but in humility and repentance we hope the path forward offers a way toward healing for survivors and their families,” the statement said.
Even if such a panel were truly independent, all this would do is allow the Church to limit payments to victims depending on how badly they suffered. As if some rape victims weren’t as seriously traumatized as others, so the Church shouldn’t have to pay the price for all of them. (Keep in mind they didn’t say how much money would go into such a fund.)
Forget that. Let victims sue. Let the Church go into bankruptcy. And let Catholicism be forever synonymous with an institution that let priests get away with rape until victims, with the help of journalists, finally fought back.
The legislation isn’t limited to the Church, by the way. It would apply to abuse victims who were hurt by family members, teachers, coaches, or medical professionals, too.
There are other reasons, however, that the bill isn’t yet a slam dunk for senators:
Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said his members are also concerned that the amended bill treats victims of governmental entities, such as schools, differently than victims of private entities, such as churches. There’s a heavier burden of proof and a cap on damages in suits against governmental victims.
“We don’t think public employees should have a shield that private do not,” Corman said.
There’s a reason the rules are slightly different for the two groups. Private organizations don’t have to keep the same documentation or report the same problems to higher-ups like public ones. (There’s a reason the Church could keep abuse hidden for so long.) The Pennsylvania Republicans are also concerned about the two-year window that would be created. They passed this bill unanimously in early 2017, but the two-year window was added in as an amendment since that time, so they would be voting on a different version of the bill this time around.
Either way, while the details may change, the broad strokes of this bill are good for victims seeking justice. Republicans fighting to eliminate the two-year window would effectively be saying they don’t care about abuse that happened decades ago. The campaign ads for their opponents would write themselves.
If you live in Pennsylvania, call your state senators and urge them to vote for its passage without delay.