Applauding local religious leaders for acknowledging ‘a great sin’

“We’re not swayed by the contention of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference that the bill, if enacted, could bankrupt Catholic parishes and ministries that were not culpable in the church’s sexual abuse cases.” | “As we maintained before, we believe organizations — churches, schools, and others — have a responsibility to ensure that those who work for them are protecting the children in their care. And if that responsibility is or was not carried out, then the negligent organization should have to face the abused in court.”

| 6/20/16 | LancasterOnline Editorial |

Earlier this month, Lancaster County religious leaders from a mix of Christian denominations added their names to a letter to the state Senate Judiciary Committee. They urged quick passage in the Senate of House Bill 1947, which was approved overwhelmingly in the state House in April.

The bill would abolish the statute of limitations for future criminal cases of child sexual abuse, and extend by 20 years the time for victims to bring civil suits against their assailants and an agency whose negligence enabled the abuse. Victims would have until age 50 to initiate civil cases under the bill. The proposed law would be retroactive, meaning victims now 30 to 50 years old could still bring civil suits.

The retroactive provision in the bill is strongly opposed by the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference — the public affairs arm of the Catholic dioceses in this state — and the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania. The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the bill last Monday.

We applaud the more than two dozen local Christian leaders who have taken a public stand on the side of victims of childhood sexual abuse.

They include the Rev. Dr. Carol Lytch, president of the Lancaster Theological Seminary; Beth Kuttab, president of Lancaster Interchurch Peace Witness; and ministers and deacons from Brethren, Episcopal, Mennonite, United Methodist, Lutheran and United Church of Christ churches.

The letter they signed, which was circulated by the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, called the sexual abuse of a child “a great sin, as well as a crime,” and asserted that “survivors deserve the opportunity to seek justice and hold those who harmed them accountable.”

We hold this view, too.

We’re not swayed by the contention of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference that the bill, if enacted, could bankrupt Catholic parishes and ministries that were not culpable in the church’s sexual abuse cases.

The latest and among the most egregious of such cases are in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown. There an investigative grand jury found that hundreds of children had been sexually abused by at least 50 priests or religious leaders over at least 40 years and two bishops had covered up the abuse.

As we maintained before, we believe organizations — churches, schools, and others — have a responsibility to ensure that those who work for them are protecting the children in their care. And if that responsibility is or was not carried out, then the negligent organization should have to face the abused in court.

The letter from the religious leaders noted the sorrow they felt after seeing the church in the news for failing to protect children. “We grieve the harm this has done not only to the reputation of the church, but to the Lord Jesus Christ we serve.”

We believe the Catholic Church shares this sorrow. But we also believe it’s making a mistake by placing financial concerns before those of sexual abuse survivors.

And we were disappointed — and frankly puzzled — to learn that Solicitor General Bruce Castor testified at last Monday’s hearing against the constitutionality of the retroactive provision in House Bill 1947.

He is Attorney General Kathleen Kane’s top legal aide. And it was she who called for sweeping statute of limitations reform when she unveiled the grand jury report on the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese in March. (Is nothing out of the attorney general’s office straightforward?)

We were heartened to learn, however, that if the bill comes to a vote before the full Senate, Lancaster County Sens. Lloyd Smucker and Ryan Aument say they will support it.

“The sexual exploitation and the abuse of children cannot be tolerated in our society,” Aument said in an email to LNP. “Our laws must reflect the seriousness of these situations and be a genuine deterrent to those that seek to victimize children.”

We fully agree, and now hope that those working to keep the bill from the Senate floor have a change of heart.

To report suspected child abuse, call ChildLine at 800-932-0313, or go to the website: keepkidssafe.pa.gov.

YWCA Lancaster Sexual Assault Prevention & Counseling Center has a 24-hour sexual assault hotline: 392-7273.

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