Editorials from around Pennsylvania:

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A RIGHT TO JUSTICE, Aug. 17

In 2016, the year after Act 27 was implemented, state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale criticized state law enforcement and health officials for both the rape kit testing backlog and for a poor reporting system.

He was absolutely right to make that a priority, and we're encouraged by the measurable progress that has been made in significantly reducing the backlog.

But we want to see that number get to zero — so more work clearly must be done.

We have a tendency to minimize the crime of sexual assault. If a bullet is fired, it's generally tested immediately — not put into a drawer for a year or more. Why the different standard for rape kits in some police departments? They should be tested as quickly as possible, so perpetrators can be tracked before they offend again.

We applaud Lancaster County law enforcement for reporting no backlogged rape kits — a template for other counties to follow.

"If there are zero untested rape kits in Lancaster County, that is certainly a very good thing," DePasquale recently told LNP.

Blest's report was prompted by Kendra Saunders, who submitted a question about the status of rape kits in this county through We the People, LancasterOnline's reader-powered journalism project.

Saunders, a counseling psychologist at Millersville University, said she has worked with many sexual assault victims.

"One really simple thing we can do to show that we value victims is to test their rape kits," she told LNP.

As Blest reported, men such as Gabriel Valentin-Rodriguez, Antwuan Gomez and Robert Pitt wouldn't have been charged with sexual assault crimes committed in Lancaster County and convicted without the results of a rape kit being tested.

Lancaster County police departments submitted 42 cases last year and the state police tested them all, state police spokesman Ryan Tarkowski told Blest.

Act 27 set requirements for reporting how many kits are backlogged, meaning untested for more than a year.

The legislation requires municipal police departments to report annually how many of their kits are backlogged. In the first report in 2016, Lancaster County departments had 28 backlogged kits. Officials at many of the departments said they did not understand how to report the information correctly.

However, district attorney spokesman Brett Hambright told Blest a backlog hasn't been a problem with county departments.

"I can only speak for Lancaster County in saying we have never had a true backlog in the sense of kits that should be tested (being) essentially neglected in evidence lockers."

Kits that had been classified as backlogged fell under two categories that the Department of Health added for its April 2018 report: a victim who did not consent to testing or an anonymous victim, Hambright said.

After evidence is gathered in a rape kit, victims must give consent for a kit to be tested by police, according to state law. Some victims decide against taking that step.

"That number will probably never be zero," DePasquale said.

Testing rape kits "does help prevent future rapes and crack down on future crimes," he said. "But you have to respect the wishes of the victim and walk through it with the victim."

He is right about this.

At Lancaster General, trained sexual assault forensic nurse examiners, or SAFE nurses, provide care to victims of sexual assault, Mary Ann Eckard, spokeswoman for Lancaster General Health, told Blest.

"The SAFE nurse's primary concern is for the patient's physical and emotional well-being," she said. "Evidence collection is important, but the patient's medical needs and emotional well-being are always the first focus."

This is as it should be.

Police from the jurisdiction in which the crime happened have 72 hours to pick up the kit from the hospital. Those departments have 15 days to send it to one of three state labs. If a victim doesn't give immediate approval for testing, his or her kit must be stored for at least two years, according to state law, Blest reported.

But Lancaster city police keep untested kits 10 more years, to give victims time to come forward before the state statute of limitations on the assaults committed against them expire, Lt. Phil Berkheiser said.

"Some may feel that they are not ready to talk about it to law enforcement and can be assured that the evidence will be properly collected and held until they are ready to proceed," he said.

We commend Lancaster police for this. It can take years before victims of sexual assault are ready to talk about what they endured. Giving them time to decide whether to proceed with the testing of their rape kits is something all police departments should do.

The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape would like the commonwealth to strengthen the guidelines on the handling of rape kits.

There are no guidelines, for instance, about informing victims if their kit is about to be destroyed, Kristen Houser, PCAR's chief public affairs officer said.

Better protocols for kit collection, kit processing, kit storage and kit destruction need to be established, she said.

We agree.

We can never hope to erase the pain of what survivors have been through — much as we desperately want to.

But what we can do, at least, is to ensure that the criminal justice system gives them the respect and dignity they deserve, by handling carefully the evidence of the harm that was done to them.

__ LNP

__ Online: https://bit.ly/2BJFfoC

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U.S.-MEXICAN EFFORT IS THE RIGHT STEP IN THE DRUG WAR, Aug. 21

Powerful, well-funded drug cartels are responsible for misery on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. A bilateral partnership to target the cartels' finances could be a powerful strategy for addressing the threat posed by the vicious gangs and improving neighborly relations as well.

The Drug Enforcement Administration recently announced it was launching a collaborative unit based in Chicago with Mexican authorities to target the cartels' finances. The group aims to make it tougher for the cartels to do business.

The new cross-border team also plans to step up the manhunt for cartel leaders. The capture and extradition of Sinaloa cartel kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, now awaiting trial in New York, was a success. Now the authorities have set their sights on an even more elusive cartel leader, Nemesio "El Mencho" Oseguera Cervantes, head of the Jalisco New Generation cartel.

The cartels have exploited poor relations between Mexico and the United States and real weaknesses at the border.

They smuggle drugs into the U.S. that fuel the opioid epidemic and gang violence in various cities. A DEA threat assessment from 2015 showed that the majority of heroin coming into the United States comes from Mexico. The cartels also are working with Chinese drug suppliers to smuggle even more deadly synthetic opioids such as fentanyl here.

And the cartel smuggling isn't limited to drugs. These criminal organizations are also responsible for human trafficking, sneaking vulnerable and exploited migrants across the border who later are trapped in sex trafficking or labor.

When they return south, the cartel smugglers are often carrying illicit American guns into Mexico. Despite its rather strict gun laws, Mexico is suffering an epidemic of gun violence thanks to these weapons.

Both countries have good reason to seek a solution to the cartel problem. Setting up a joint project to tackle it cooperatively is a smart strategy. The cartels have exploited U.S.-Mexican diplomatic tensions for too long and innocents in both countries have paid the price.

__ The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

__ Online: https://bit.ly/2N7UpoE

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INDIVIDUALS WILL DECIDE FUTURE OF CATHOLIC FAITH, Aug. 18

You may have seen this. It's been resurrected by many in recent days, for good reason.

In 1969, after the tectonic shifts wrought by the Second Vatican Council, a priest by the name of John Ratzinger — his own life tainted for many by service in the Hitler Youth — was asked about the future of the Catholic Church.

"Let us, therefore, be cautious in our prognostications" the future Pope Benedict XVI said, "What St. Augustine said is still true: man is an abyss; what will rise out of these depths, no one can see in advance."

Roman Catholics throughout the Scranton Diocese and across the commonwealth grapple this week with that abyss, with the exposure of the depths of depravity in some of their priests that spanned decades, and with the horrifying extent of how far bishops — including James Timlin — were willing to go to keep these sins of the fathers covered up.

How much atonement will be enough? What punishment will be just? Catholics may ask themselves if Timlin and other bishops named in the report should be defrocked, perhaps even ex-communicated.

The grand jury report is damning in the blame of many bishops, and in the culture of secret files and code words that permeated the entire approach to priest sexual abuse through the decades. It is unequivocal in noting "individual leaders of the church have largely escaped public accountability."

Catholics who respect and appreciate their own parish pastor may be wondering — indeed, may have a moral responsibility to ask — how well the hierarchy polices itself. If bishops fail, do the Metropolitans — with their limited authority — step in? Does the Nuncio in Washington have an eye out for transgressions of those below his station? How well does the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops patrol its own ranks? Has the pope done enough to show in no uncertain terms that cover ups and secrets will not be tolerated when it comes to the safety of children and parishioners?

What actions will be sufficient to keep a person from leaving the flock, to justify returning to Mass this week, next month, next year? Are apologies enough? Or is it time for another tectonic shift, a radical restructuring. Is the demand for priest celibacy an edict that needs to go? Should women be allowed to be ordained?

What is the future of the Catholic Church in the wake of the grand jury report? Ratzinger — hardly absolved in this debate thanks to his own prominence in church hierarchy during the cover-ups — may have answered the question long ago.

"From the crisis of today, the church of tomorrow will emerge — a church that has lost much," he said in 1969. "She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning.

"The future of the Church can and will issue from those whose roots are deep and who live from the pure fullness of their faith. It will not issue from those who accommodate themselves merely to the passing moment or from those who merely criticize others and assume that they themselves are infallible measuring rods; nor will it issue from those who take the easier road, who sidestep the passion of faith, declaring false and obsolete, tyrannous and legalistic, all that makes demands upon men, that hurts them and compels them to sacrifice themselves."

When all is said and done, no religion is about its clerics and leaders. It is always quite literally a matter of personal faith. Each Catholic in this county and this state will decide whether and how his or her faith endures this scandal. The future of the Diocese of Scranton, and the Catholic Church, will emerge from those decisions.

__ The Wilkes-Barre Times Leader

__ Online: https://bit.ly/2MLKVT4

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DEATH BY PANDERING, Aug. 22

Defying environmental stewardship, public health, technology and economics, President Donald Trump once again has proposed sacrificing the public good to appeasing a slice of his political base.

Tuesday, Trump proposed rolling back the Obama administration's proposed standards to diminish carbon emissions from power plants. The Environmental Protection Agency's mission is supposed to be to reduce air and water pollution, but this wayward proposal clearly would increase both.

The Trump proposal would have a particularly negative impact on Northeast Pennsylvania. Many of the highly polluting plants that Trump would save by increasing pollution are to the southwest, in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and the Ohio Valley. Their pollution once again would be carried here by prevailing winds.

Under the targeted Clean Power Plan, carbon emissions from power plants would have to be reduced by 30 percent by 2030, based on a 2005 baseline, or by about 19 percent from current levels. The proposed Affordable Clean Energy plan would require carbon reductions of between 0.8 percent and 1.7 percent.

The EPA's abandonment of pollution reduction follows the administration's efforts to concoct methods to keep open coal and nuclear-fueled power plants that continue to be eclipsed in the marketplace by gas-fueled plants and renewable sources.

Incredibly, the EPA itself estimates that the rule could lead to between 470 and 1,400 premature deaths each year compared to the Obama-era rule.

That alone should render this giveaway to coal interests a nonstarter. Attorney General Josh Shapiro and his colleagues from other adversely affected states should sue to force the EPA to diminish, rather than increase, pollution that adversely affects public health.

__ The Scranton Times-Tribune

__ Online: https://bit.ly/2OTxQEL

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ABUSE VICTIMS OWED PATH TO JUSTICE, Aug. 19

We credit Bishop Lawrence Persico for his clear-eyed leadership and compassion amid this unprecedented reckoning for the Catholic Diocese of Erie.

State Attorney General Josh Shapiro noted that Persico's first impulse at the outset of the grand jury probe of clergy child sexual abuse in six Pennsylvania dioceses was not transparency. What matters is that Persico quickly abandoned that approach and forged ahead with the victims first in mind.

He was the sole bishop to testify before the grand jury and months before the report was made public on Tuesday he released not only the names of priests credibly accused of abuse, but also laity, as part of an ongoing, independent diocesan probe.

Persico's words following the release of the report — humble, repentant — are in accord with the depth of trauma the report conveys. Rebuilding trust is the first task at hand. Ongoing transparency is essential. So is reform.

More than a year ago, Persico was among church officials statewide, along with the Catholic Conference and insurance industry lobbyists, to oppose a push in the state Legislature to change the statute of limitations and allow victims of sexual abuse to reach into the past to sue their abusers in court. They won. Such a change would drain church coffers and weaken ministries, they said. They also argued that retroactivity would be unconstitutional.

The grand jurors who generated Tuesday's 800-plus-page report called for four reforms: eliminating the statute of limitations to file criminal charges of child sexual abuse and opening a two-year window for victims of past abuse to file civil suits. They want to broom nondisclosure agreements that block victims from reporting crimes to police and tighten laws to ensure suspected abuse is reported. The church and lawmakers must heed this call.

Some Republican legislators appear ready to drop the statute of limitations in criminal cases and give victims going forward until the age of 50 to file civil complaints against abusers. That leaves too many of the older victims contained in the report with no path to justice.

Berks County state Rep. Mark Rozzi, a victim of clergy sexual abuse, and others have advocated for the two-year retroactivity window, which we support. Attorney General Shapiro also has called for a retroactivity provision, saying he believes it will pass constitutional muster. From there, let the courts sort it out.

__ The Erie Times News

__ Online: https://bit.ly/2OUfZh1