Pennsylvania Capitol

The Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg.

Adults who were victims of sexual abuse as teens and children often tell of how those around them refused to believe their stories – even defending their abusers, and adding to the mental torment those victims were experiencing.

Now, those victims are getting the same treatment from the Pennsylvania Senate, which is choosing to side with abusers and the individuals and organizations that allowed the crimes to happen, while showing indifference to the plight of the abused.

House Bill 951 would open a two-year window for sexual abuse victims to sue the organizations that failed to act or covered up that abuse, even if cases fall outside the statute of limitations. The measure has languished in the state Senate.

Last week, Majority Leader Kim Ward, a Westmoreland County Republican, said there are no plans for the Senate to act on that legislation, which passed the state House in April by a 3-to-1 margin.

Ward said she thinks the state Constitution bars the legislature from changing the penalty for a crime retroactively, as our John Finnerty reported from Harrisburg.

We say, pass the bill, senators, and let the courts decide constitutionality.

Ward said she prefers steps to amend the state Constitution over opening a lawsuit window legislatively.

That was attempted early this year, but the Department of State missed a deadline for getting a constitutional amendment referendum question on the ballot. That inexplicable failure cost Kathy Boockvar her job as secretary of state.

Ward’s lack of action on behalf of victims is no less contemptible.

She made her statement on Sept. 20 – just hours after a rally on the state Capitol steps urging the Senate to act.

At that gathering, Attorney General Josh Shapiro again challenged the argument that such a move would not pass constitutional muster.

Shapiro accused Ward and others in the Senate of being influenced by lobbyists representing the Catholic Church and the insurance industry.

The disregard for victims in Pennsylvania mirrors the experiences of members of the USA Gymnastics team, who suffered abuse by former team doctor Larry Nassar and whose pleas to investigators were ignored – allowing the abuse to continue for years.

Speaking recently before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles and three teammates recounted their frustrations with those empowered to act on their behalf – including the FBI.

“I blame Larry Nassar and I also blame an entire system that enabled and perpetrated his abuse,” Biles told the committee.

And so it continues in Pennsylvania, where a lawsuit window bill was first introduced in 2005. Since then, 18 other states have taken action on behalf of abuse victims, Marci Hamilton, founder and CEO of Philadelphia-based ChildUSA, said.

Since 2018 – when a Pennsylvania grand jury presentment found evidence that church officials had covered up for 300 priests who molested more than 1,000 children in six dioceses over several decades – 12 states, including neighboring New Jersey and New York, have opened lawsuit windows successfully.

Two years earlier, a grand jury report found similar levels of abuse in the Altoona-Johns-town diocese through an investigation spurred by the Brother Stephen Baker scandal at Bishop McCort Catholic High School.

Johnstown victims advocate Shaun Dougherty told The Tribune-Democrat that the Senate Judiciary Committee moved HB 951 to the full Senate, with support from several Republican members with legal backgrounds – including state Sen. Wayne Langerholc of Richland Township.

Dougherty unsuccessfully challenged Langerholc in the 2020 recent election, but said Langerholc believes the measure to be constitutional.

The earliest another Constitutional amendment could go before the voters is 2023.

It would be a crime if victims had to wait another two years.

But many of them have been waiting many years – even decades – for something approaching justice.

Sorry, Sen. Ward, but this issue isn’t going away.

Unlike the Pennsylvania Senate, we will continue to stand with victims and echo their calls for their government to do what so many others in their lives did not.

Listen, and act.

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