For two years, the 23 men and women of the 40th Pennsylvania Statewide Investigating Grand Jury met and listened to victims bravely recount the abuse they suffered at the hands of Catholic priests from six dioceses across the commonwealth. For two years, they reviewed a half-million pages of church documents from secret archives that corroborated the abuse, and heard gut-wrenching testimony about the effect that abuse still has on many victims to this day.
After bearing witness to this immense pain and suffering, the grand jury unanimously approved a report of its findings and then went a step further by making suggestions to protect children, give survivors justice, and ensure that this type of systemic, institutional cover-up of child sex abuse never happens again in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. These recommendations took the form of four changes to Pennsylvania legal statutes and were included as part of the grand jury's report released on Aug. 14, 2018.
The four recommendations as they appeared in the report are:
Eliminate the criminal statute of limitations for sexually abusing children.
Create a two-year "civil window" for child sex abuse victims who couldn't file lawsuits before.
Clarify the penalties for a continuing failure to report child abuse.
Prohibit "nondisclosure" agreements from barring cooperation with law enforcement.
Since the release of the grand jury's report two months ago, I have stood with victims in calling on the Pennsylvania Legislature to enact all four of these reforms. At the same time, there has been vigorous public debate from lawmakers and the media about the merits of these recommended reforms and how best to turn these ideas into law. With the legislative session drawing to a close, the time to act is now.
The House of Representatives took action in late September by voting overwhelmingly to create a two-year civil window for victims to file lawsuits and recover for the pain and suffering they endured, and to eliminate the criminal statute of limitations on child sexual abuse. Gov. Wolf has pledged his signature. This legislation is now with the Senate waiting to be called for a vote. The other two reforms – clarifying penalties for a continuing failure to report abuse and prohibiting nondisclosure agreements from impeding cooperation with law enforcement — are also waiting to be taken up.
The time is now for the Senate to vote on the reforms that have already been passed with a broad bipartisan majority by the House, and to pass the two other recommended reforms, which have received broad public support. By passing these reforms, senators can demonstrate their support for victims and honor the work of the grand jurors. Senators have a clear choice: Stand with victims and survivors and vote yes on the four reforms, or stand with the church and its lobbyists and fail to act.
Josh Shapiro is the attorney general of Pennsylvania.