Beginning this week, individuals sexually abused as children have a greater opportunity to seek criminal charges or civil action against those who violated them years ago.
Well, in New York state anyway.
Here in Pennsylvania, the laws are unchanged – despite a series of grand jury reports alleging widespread abuse in the Catholic church, despite high-profile cases against college coaches and trainers and a local pediatrician, and despite intense lobbying on behalf of victims.
Despite, incredibly, two measures passing the state House of Representatives, either of which would have given victims a two-year window to file lawsuits.
Twelve months ago, on Aug. 14, 2018, a statewide grand jury reported abuse across six dioceses – Erie, Greensburg, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Allentown and Scranton. The report said more than 300 clergy members had committed abuse involving more than 1,000 victims over decades – crimes covered up by church leaders.
A prior report, in 2016, alleged abuse by 50 individuals with hundreds of victims across the Altoona-Johnstown Roman Catholic Diocese.
State Attorney General Josh Shapiro expressed optimism about the impact of those investigations, that he believes a “global reckoning” is taking place as other regions see the Pennsylvania reports and realize that the same types of criminal and immoral behavior are happening in their communities.
Shapiro called the 2018 report the “broadest, most comprehensive ever written by a law enforcement agency – both in terms of the abuse and the coverup” – even after investigations in Philadelphia and Boston, the latter of which inspired the movie “Spotlight.”
Here’s what’s been happening outside Pennsylvania:
• At last count, 20 states and the District of Columbia have passed abuse reforms in 2019.
• New York and New Jersey approved windows for victims to take action if they were past the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse.
• New York raised the ceiling for victims to file civil action from age 23 to 55.
And here in the Keystone State, nothing has changed, victims advocates say. The statute for civil cases remains stuck at age 30, while those victimized as children can file criminal charges until age 50.
Johnstown native Shaun Dougherty, a priest victim and outspoken supporter of church accountability, attended a meeting on the child sexual abuse issue this spring at the Vatican. He delivered a photograph of Johnstown abuse victim Corey Leech – who died in 2017 – from Leech’s parents, Bernie and Cindy.
“We heard nothing from anybody,” Cindy Leech said.
“I think that was – to me – like the final straw. There are probably thousands of priests. Somebody couldn’t have taken the time to respond, to say something?”
That the church would not respond is sadly not surprising.
Its leaders have been ignoring or hiding this issue for decades.
We find it inexcusable that our elected leaders – especially the Republican leadership of the Senate – is equally willing to turn a blind eye to victims and their families.
Twice the House has passed so-called window legislation, and twice the Senate has failed to follow through and get a change approved.
State Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, authored a bill last year that would have eliminated the criminal statute of limitations and created a two-year window for civil claims, as our Dave Sutor reported. The measure passed the House, and is backed by Shapiro and Gov. Tom Wolf.
Key opponents of allowing people to retroactively file lawsuits are the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania.
State Sen. Pat Stefano, a Republican whose district includes Somerset County, said he favors statute changes moving forward but not retroactive measures.
Stefano said: “It’s so hard to judge yesterday by today’s standards.”
No, it’s the only recourse available.
Yesterday’s standards were that the church hid abuse by priests, protected abusers and convinced families to not take their concerns to the police.
Those who were victimized as children need lawmakers who have the courage today to take action that begins to address the sins of the past.
We’re a year removed from a damning grand jury report into crimes against children across Pennsylvania.
Now adults, should those victims have hope for justice?
The Senate keeps telling them no.
We will keep saying yes until the Senate acts on behalf of those who for so long were ignored.