State To Victims: Wait
The Pennsylvania Legislature, once again, is poised to turn its back on who knows how many survivors of child sex abuse. Promises of action? Pledges to victims? Repeated assurances that those who were violated (and long-voiceless) might find some measure of justice? You tell me. The state is among the nation’s worst in terms of legal recourse for victims. Ironic, given state findings of abuse that last year lit up the issue. Our legislature, of course, swung into action, embraced survivors and proceeded to pose and preach. Then failed to do anything. Now, the issue is back with new legislation expected to be taken up this week. But it’s really only for future victims. For past victims? The waiting room. It’s a two-bill package with bipartisan sponsorship from Reps. Mark Rozzi, a Berks County Democrat, and Jim Gregory, a Blair County Republican. One bill eliminates the criminal statute of limitations for abuse, which, if enacted, catches us up to 40 other states. Hey, better late than never. It also gives future victims the option up to age 55 to sue their abusers. Current law allows such lawsuits up to age 30. But gone is the will to open a “window” of time during which past victims — for whom statutes expired — can sue. Instead, while other states move in that direction (New York now has a window; New Jersey just passed one that Gov. Phil Murphy is expected to sign), we’re keeping that window shut. Oh, the second bill addresses a window. But it calls for amending the state constitution, a clear and drastic shift in approach that can’t sit well with survivors. A constitutional amendment needs to pass two successive legislative sessions before going to voters as a statewide ballot question, a long, often dead-end process. At a minimum, we’re talking three years. And the legislature can get tricky with constitutional amendments, passing them in one session, forgetting them in the next. So, the best we’re offering past victims is take a number, have a seat. We’ll be with you in a few years. And why? “I just want to move legislation. We have to do something.” That’s what Rozzi tells me. He’s a survivor of abuse, the Legislature’s most relentless advocate for reform, who’s pushed for a window. But he says the Republican-run Senate — which last year killed House-passed legislation with a window on grounds it was unconstitutional — won’t budge. Rozzi says he still wants a window. Yet he’s moving on. When I suggest he’s bailing on victims, he says, “Oh, yeah, I’m no doubt taking grief.” When I suggest the constitutional route is far from a smooth ride, he says, “That’s definitely a concern. There’s no guarantee we’ll get it passed.” So, it’s taking a shot at getting something less than ideal that may or may not pass for the sake of pragmatic compromise. And that makes sense if negotiating infrastructure projects. Not so much when it comes to peoples’ rights. Plus, even if the constitutional approach clears the House, there’s no deal with the Senate. “We’re not taking a position,” says Senate senior counsel Drew Crompton. “Too many moving parts.” Meanwhile, the state that eight months ago became the issue’s epicenter — after a two-year grand jury probe found widespread abuse and cover-up within the Catholic Church — remains in limbo regarding past victims. And that’s all victims, from all churches, all institutions, public or private. And who gains from this? The individuals and institutions that committed and hid the abuse. Attorney General Josh Shapiro, whose office ran the grand jury, continues to favor “a window in the civil statute of limitations so victims can finally have their voices heard in court,” according to spokesperson Joe Grace. Gov. Tom Wolf’s press secretary J.J. Abbott says Wolf also still supports a window. And while compromise lies at the heart of successful politics, this issue is, or should be, apolitical. This is about people who have suffered. People who were handed hope in the wake of last August’s grand jury report. People who should not now be abandoned. All lawmakers should fight for them, not negotiate their options away. All leaders, including Wolf and Shapiro, should fight for them, as well. JOHN BAER is a columnist for The Philadelphia Daily News.