Do not for a moment buy the adage that justice is blind. Not in Pennsylvania. Not this week.
After a stunning change to New Jersey law that became official on Monday, and an equally stunning change to New York law in February, justice for sexual assault victims in Pennsylvania now is a second-tier matter, denied by politics and the poor luck of geography.
The divide is stark. It is absurd. And it is — make no mistake — entirely a product of Republican leadership of the House and Senate in Pennsylvania.
Were you raped as a child by a Pennsylvania priest or schoolteacher? If you want justice, then you had better hope it happened in New Jersey or New York. Only those states, under groundbreaking laws, allow civil action for abuse that happened years ago. It is why a Philadelphia man on Monday announced he is suing the Camden Diocese for alleged clergy abuse in Ventnor, N.J.
If, however, you were violated by a Pennsylvania priest or teacher somewhere between Erie and Philly, your only legal option is to shut up and move on. The men who control the House and Senate have chosen to bow to bishops and insurance underwriters rather than stand for the children damaged for life by abusers.
This is the moral fault line. An immoral one. Pennsylvania at its most bankrupt.
It was not magic that made New Jersey and New York care about victims. It was voters — and Democrats running the show.
Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s being replaced by Democrat Phil Murphy in 2017 set the stage, after two decades of legislative struggle, for changing the statute of limitations so that people no longer had only a few years, essentially, to sue before losing that right.
Another foe of such a reform, Democratic Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, then got out of the way in January 2018 by stepping down. His replacement as speaker, Democrat Craig Coughlin, was supportive of suspending the statute of limitations so that all victims could sue.
Then came revelations late last year in Pennsylvania’s sweeping grand jury report into Catholic Church abuse across the state — a staggering prosecutorial document that outraged people across the world. It was enough that, across the Delaware River in New Jersey, the Democratic Senate and Assembly finally united behind victims. They passed a bill, signed by Murphy this week, allowing all victims of sexual abuse, regardless of age, to sue their rapist or the institution that oversaw their abuser.
Any victim for whom the statute of limitations had run out will now have two years, starting in December, to file suit. This is a similar, if not exact, version of what Pennsylvania’s Republicans have fought for years. New York passed a similar bill only after Democrats there took control of the state Senate in November.
“It’s probably in the top one or two pieces of legislation I’ve worked on in the past 21 years,” Democratic Sen. Joe Vitale, 64, the bill’s longtime advocate in New Jersey, told me Tuesday.
It took 18 years, Vitale said. Bishops called lawmakers. Lobbyists fought to protect the insurance industry from potential payouts. To the end, Vitale had doubters.
“I won some dinner bets,” Vitale quipped. “I think good triumphs over evil.”
Yes. A moral victory.
“If every member of the Pennsylvania legislature sat through a hearing and listened to the stories of victims and their parents who lost their children to suicide because they couldn’t live with the pain of their abuse," he said, "they would likely change their minds.”
Republican leaders in Pennsylvania have not held a single hearing in 15 years to hear from abuse victims. And their leader now, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, unapologetically defeated a statute of limitations bill late in October that would have done much of what New York and New Jersey are now allowing.
>> READ MORE: The Catholic Church Owns the Pa. Capitol
Democratic voters made Scarnati’s party pay in November. The GOP majority in both chambers is now vulnerable enough that Democrats may have a chance at flipping control in 2020, unless its gerrymandering holds.
This is the prescription for justice in Pennsylvania. Get the wrong guys out and get the right guys in.
Democratic Sen. Katie Muth of Montgomery County, who ousted a longtime Republican in November, has introduced a statute of limitations bill that would give victims two years to file lawsuits. Odds are long for its passage with Republicans in charge.
“You’re talking to someone who’s not supposed to be in the Senate right now and didn’t have the odds to win,” Muth told me Tuesday. “I think our odds are maybe against us. But again, I’m not a quitter.”
Neither was Vitale. Thank God.