With each passing day, Pennsylvania kids become more at risk of abuse while just across the state line, kids in New Jersey and New York are becoming dramatically safer. This may sound like hyperbole, but it’s not. A recent state Supreme Court ruling illustrates the problem and shows why.
In July, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out a lawsuit from a woman seeking to recover damages from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown for allegedly facilitating sexual abuse she said she experienced at the hands of a priest in the late 1970s. The court’s ruling that her claim was too late under the state’s statute of limitations illustrates the problem with Pennsylvania law.
Kids are safest, of course, when child molesters are behind bars. But criminally prosecuting sex crimes is notoriously hard and expensive, with a high burden of proof and often overworked and underfunded police and prosecutors — and overly restrictive time limitations like Pennsylvania’s.
When abusers cannot be convicted and imprisoned, the next best step is exposing those who commit and conceal child sex crimes. That happens best through civil lawsuits, which are brought directly by victims themselves, without law enforcement resources and with a lower evidentiary bar.
In the last two years, more than 9,000 New York survivors have filed such suits. In New Jersey, hundreds have done likewise. That’s because of window legislation that revived claims that expired due to their short statutes of limitation.
In each state where window legislation is passed, like New York and New Jersey, CHILD USA and the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) have partnered on a “Survivor’s Tool Kit” to help educate survivors of their legal rights. Unfortunately, those in Pennsylvania don’t need one because lawmakers have listened to lobbyists first and foremost.
Through litigation from window legislation, thousands of predators have been publicly exposed, hundreds for the first time. In New York, for instance, just last month at least 11 new cases were filed just in St. Lawrence County. Victims are still coming forward, and there are inevitably thousands more who are just not ready, even with this revival window.
But it’s not just New York and New Jersey. In recent years, nearly 25 states have passed laws that have enabled thousands of deeply wounded victims of horrific child sex crimes to expose hundreds of sick adults who commit and conceal heinous child sex crimes.
Sadly, Pennsylvania is not one of them. This would all be ironic if it weren’t so tragic: Pennsylvania ought to be leading the pack in terms of children’s safety.
Pennsylvania has, in recent years, seen some of the most alarming scandals of serious allegations of rape, molestation, and abuse, enabled by corrupt or callous colleagues or supervisors. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s 2018 grand jury report on six Catholic dioceses uncovered “a systematic cover up spanning decades by senior church leaders in Pennsylvania and the Vatican.” Jerry Sandusky, an assistant football coach at Penn State, was convicted in 2012 of 45 counts of child sexual abuse, with charges addressing acts against 10 boys over 15 years. And a 2017 grand jury report on New Hope’s Solebury School found a level of abuse and preying on children that Bucks County District Attorney Matthew Weintraub described as “fishing in a barrel.”
What’s the hold up for more accountability in Pennsylvania? It appears to be greed. Two powerful forces — the Catholic hierarchy and the insurance industry — have put their selfish ends ahead of children’s safety and victims’ healing. The church primarily wants to protect its secrets. The insurers primarily want to protect their assets. And neither, of course, puts the safety of kids or the healing of victims first.
What will break the logjam in Pennsylvania and enable still-suffering abuse victims to expose those who commit or conceal crimes in courts?
CHILD USA, CHILD USAdvocacy, and other advocacy groups in Pennsylvania (SNAP and the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (PCAR)) have worked tirelessly for years to get this legislation passed in the state and answered all the questions there are on constitutionality, the burden on the courts, etc. — and still, nothing happens.
We need the one attribute that’s often the hardest to find: courage. Lawmakers must find the courage to stand up to the self-serving.
And unless Pennsylvania legislators act soon, years from now, we’ll learn more children will have needlessly suffered while powerful politicians make excuses and offer apologies instead of enacting simple solutions.
David Clohessy is the former national director of SNAP. Jillian Ruck is executive director of CHILD USA, a national think tank working to end child abuse and neglect.