Last month, I posted about a bill passed by the Pennsylvania House that would have given victims of child sexual abuse a chance to get justice. It would’ve been the appropriate way to respond after a grand jury documented the horrors within the state’s Catholic dioceses, implicating more than 300 priests in the process.
Here’s what Senate Bill 261 would have done:
- 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 was a really big deal, because it would have 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. With this bill, they could do something about it. All they needed was for the State Senate to pass the bill since the Democratic governor had already said he would sign it.
But then there was opposition. The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference worried that a two-year window for victims currently shut out of the legal system would lead the Church into bankruptcy. Republicans also shared concerns that the bill treated victims of public school teachers differently from victims of priests. There was a heavier burden of proof (and a cap on damages) when it came to victims of government institutions — meaning it would be easier tp punish priests than teachers. And Republicans are all about equality, dammit!
The Republicans didn’t talk about how there was a reason the rules were different. Private organizations don’t have to keep the same documentation or report the same problems to higher-ups like public ones.
In any case, the bill was in the (overwhelmingly Republican) State Senate’s hands. What did they do?
Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (below) amended the bill to allow victims to sue individual priests, but not the institutions that supervised them. (So much for punishing the Church for covering up the crimes.) Scarnati also wanted a state-run compensation fund for all those victims currently shut out of the system who would be eligible to sue under the new bill. (So much for bankrupting the Church.)
In other words, Scarnati and Republicans wanted the bill to do as little damage to the Catholic Church as possible. Which is to say they wanted to make sure victims of child sex abuse couldn’t get justice.
There was no compromise to be made. And yesterday, the bill died without a vote.
[Attorney General Josh] Shapiro earlier in the day had called Scarnati’s compromise plan “disgraceful.”
“A priest earns about $25,000 a year and will have no ability to pay for the mental-health counseling and the drug and alcohol counseling, the services that these victims need,” said Shapiro, who came to the Capitol on Wednesday to meet with top senators. “The only entity that can help support these victims ironically is the institution that enabled the abuse, and they are exempt.”
Asked about the idea behind a victims compensation fund, Shapiro said: “The idea that you are going to let the Catholic Church define whether or not it participates and how much they are willing to put into a fund is a slap in the face to the victims … and it allows them to continue the cover-up, to continue to silence victims.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer called the GOP’s actions “shameful” in an editorial:
The Senate has turned its back on victims whose lives were ruined by the crimes of hundreds of priests and a church that ran out the clock on the statutes of limitations so it could hold on to its fortune and reputation. Many victims are so tortured by their stolen innocence that they turn to alcohol, substance abuse, and, in some cases, suicide. But that doesn’t matter to Senate leaders who used weak excuses to deny them justice.
After betraying victims, the Senate slunk out of Harrisburg to get on the campaign trail. They have a lot of nerve asking for your votes when they couldn’t even vote to help victims of abuse.
Blame Republicans. Blame Scarnati. Blame the Church for refusing to atone for its sins. And then let’s hope decent politicians file this bill again as soon as possible because victims deserve so much better than the treatment they get from the GOP at all levels.
(Screenshot via YouTube. Large portions of this article were published earlier)