Pa. Senate’s poor excuse for ignoring sexual abuse victims

“It’s almost laughable that the same legislature that passed clearly unconstitutional restraints on voting rights and free speech now claims to be so conscientious about constitutionality. Lawmakers’ sudden interest in the state’s founding document should not shield them from their responsibility to the thousands of Pennsylvania children who have been raped and molested by predators who were protected by institutions. Many child victims can’t speak up for themselves until they become adults and, even then, find it extraordinarily difficult.”

| Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial |6/20/16 |

A bogus hearing staged by the Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary Committee last week suggested some members are determined to protect the Catholic Church and insurance companies instead of securing justice for the victims of pedophiles and the institutions that protect them.

Considering a bill passed by the House that would give abuse victims more time to file criminal and civil claims, the committee limited testimony to the question of the measure’s constitutionality. That was interesting given that committee Chairman Stewart Greenleaf’s law firm represented the Norbertine Fathers, a religious order that was sued by abuse victims, and opposed a similar statute-of-limitations bill in Delaware on constitutional grounds. Greenleaf (R., Montgomery) says he had nothing to do with the case, but he didn’t disclose the potential conflict before it was revealed by the Inquirer’s Maria Panaritis.

Greenleaf and the rest of the committee heard testimony from four lawyers who argued that the bill would run afoul of the state constitution and one who disagreed. Attorney General Kathleen Kane’s top aide, Bruce Castor, the former Montgomery County district attorney who made a secret deal not to prosecute Bill Cosby for sexual assault, was among those arguing that it’s unconstitutional. Making the spectacle more bizarre, Kane herself – who was stripped of her law license amid criminal charges that she leaked confidential grand jury information – urged the Senate to pass the bill anyway.

Kane has sanctimoniously declared war on child abusers, but when she had a chance to make a lasting impact on the problem, she took a dive by presenting this confounding dual opinion. If the bill isn’t constitutional, Kane’s office should be working with the Senate to help it pass constitutional muster.

Opponents say the Pennsylvania Constitution’s remedies clause bars liability after the statute of limitations has expired, but this is not a settled issue. The state Supreme Court has not addressed the issue and is the proper forum to decide constitutional questions.

It’s almost laughable that the same legislature that passed clearly unconstitutional restraints on voting rights and free speech now claims to be so conscientious about constitutionality. Lawmakers’ sudden interest in the state’s founding document should not shield them from their responsibility to the thousands of Pennsylvania children who have been raped and molested by predators who were protected by institutions. Many child victims can’t speak up for themselves until they become adults and, even then, find it extraordinarily difficult.

This is the closest abuse victims have come to a legislative remedy since Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham first suggested amending the statute of limitations in 2005. More legislators have been motivated to support the bill by a grand jury report on rampant abuse in the Altoona-Johnstown Archdiocese, which was abetted by local police, as well as the Oscar-winning film Spotlight, which chronicles the Boston Globe’s investigation of the Catholic Church’s protection of criminal priests.

Pennsylvania’s senators must seize this rare chance to protect victims by empowering them.

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