Needed legislation gives child sexual abuse victims more time to sue

| 10/6/16 | Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial Board |

The Pennsylvania Senate can redeem itself by supporting a bill it earlier gutted that would expand both the criminal and civil statutes of limitation on child sex abuse. The legislation would allow pedophilia victims who were assaulted years ago to sue institutions that protected their abusers for decades.

The House is expected to pass its original bill and send it to the Senate before it recesses for the November election. This time, the Senate must stand up to the type of vigorous opposition it received earlier from the insurance industry, Archbishop Charles Chaput, and other leading Catholics.

Sexual assault offenders shouldn’t get to avoid punishment. Neither should the church or any other institution be exempt if, by its actions or inaction, it played a role in protecting a criminal. In a report earlier this year, a state grand jury said the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown had covered up an “epidemic” of child abuse. That should never happen again.

Opponents argue that in allowing victims to retroactively file suit for crimes that occurred years earlier, the bill would violate the state constitution’s Remedies Clause, which protects the rights of defendants. But while interim Attorney General Bruce L. Castor Jr. agreed with that opinion, current Attorney General Bruce Beemer has said he does not.

Chaput said he is also concerned about the “financial burden” and “heavy penalties” that the church may face as a result of the legislation. But the church’s potential financial losses can’t compare with the mental duress that abuse victims have endured since childhood.

The grand jury that investigated the Altoona-Johnston allegations reported that abuse by priests was so rampant that the archdiocese affixed dollar amounts for each traumatizing act, ranging from $10,000 for fondling above clothing to $175,000 for sodomy.

Release of the Altoona-Johnston report in March prompted the Attorney General’s Office to open a hotline for abuse allegations, which has received calls from throughout Pennsylvania. The state has subsequently expanded its investigation to other dioceses and is asking for records spanning 70 years.

Whoever is elected attorney general in November should not let this investigation die. It’s good to know that both major-party candidates for the job – Republican John Rafferty and Democrat Josh Shapiro, both of Montgomery County – support extending the civil statute of limitations.

In concluding an investigation in 2005, Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham suggested that institutions harboring pedophiles should pay a price. She was right. The Senate should protect children by expediting passage of an improved version of the statutes-of-limitation bill and sending a clear message that institutions should stop trying to protect their financial interests by keeping sexual abuse cases hidden.

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