Pennsylvania lawmakers deserve the mildest of applause for finally passing a set of bills addressing the statute of limitations and reporting requirements related to child abuse cases.
The bills were the outcome of a massive Pennsylvania grand jury report released by Attorney General Josh Shapiro in August 2018 that detailed the harrowing abuse of more than 1,000 children at the hands of hundreds of priests throughout the Commonwealth — and the institutional cover-up and denial of the Catholic Church that exacerbated those horrors. The report had the effect of a nuclear bomb, with national and international fallout, including response from the Vatican and other church hierarchy. Across the country, states rushed to extend or eliminate statutes of limitations or passed laws that would give prior victims the right to sue.
Here in Pennsylvania, lawmakers rushed to do nothing. Reforms, including bills addressing the statute of limitations on who can sue and when stalled, subject to intense lobbying by the church.
This November, lawmakers finally took some action. One bill ended the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution in future cases. That will apply to cases in the future. The legislature passed two other bills — one increasing penalties for failure to report abuse, and another covering provisions of nondisclosure agreements between victims and institutions. But one critical bill that would have opened a window of two years in which victims of abuse could come forward and have their day in court, allowing them to sue their abusers or the institutions that aided a coverup, instead got passed as a proposed constitutional amendment — a process that effectively puts it in a slow-motion lane that will take at least two years to come to fruition — with the possibility it ends up nowhere.
This week, New Jersey passed such legislation, opening a two-year “look back” window. As reported by the Inquirer, New Jersey church officials and others, like the Boy Scouts, are seeing dozens of lawsuits following the passage of the law.
New York passed a similar “window legislation” in August and has so far seen more than 1,000 lawsuits; the Diocese of Rochester filed for bankruptcy protection in September.
Pennsylvania’s failure to provide this window effectively means is that children who were victims of predator priests decades ago, who are over the age of 55, have no current recourse for taking action. That’s likely to include many, if not most of the cases detailed in the grand jury report.
The decades of suffering, devastation and despair that have marked so many lives will continue.
The slowness of Pennsylvania’s lawmakers to address this is an act of cruelty. It is especially ironic given their pretense of caring for children, which they insist on maintaining even while starving education funding, or passing ridiculous restrictions on reproductive rights, like a recent bill requiring death certificates and burial or cremation of fetal tissue that results from an abortion or miscarriage at any point in a pregnancy.
This current failure shows they don’t truly believe that the life and spirit of a child is all that hallowed, after all.