Win­dow of op­por­tu­nity closes for leg­is­la­tors to do the right thing

The Phoenix - - OPINION -

Re­lease of the grand jury re­port into child sex­ual abuse in the Catholic Church has dom­i­nated the news in re­cent months. As de­tails of the re­port emerged the scope of abuse in terms of the sheer num­ber of vic­tims, and the in­sti­tu­tional cover-up that fol­lowed re­sulted in de­mands for re­form within the church and for gov­ern­ment ac­tion to pro­vide some mea­sure of com­pen­sa­tion to the abused.

It has taken a long time to get to this point. De­spite decades of swirling ru­mors the prob­lem was not taken se­ri­ously un­til a few years ago. The film “Spot­light,” which de­tails the work of Bos­ton Globe jour­nal­ists who cracked the veil of se­crecy in that city’s dio­cese, did much to raise aware­ness. That trig­gered in­ves­ti­ga­tions in many other venues na­tion­wide.

In an era when the news me­dia is un­der scru­tiny, the work of the Globe re­porters stands out as a shin­ing ex­am­ple of how re­port­ing is sup­posed to work. Cov­er­age of this tragic story ex­tends far be­yond Bos­ton as the me­dia na­tion­wide and es­pe­cially here in Penn­syl­va­nia have been ex­em­plary in the per­for­mance of their in­ves­tiga­tive and watch­dog du­ties.

The le­gal sys­tem has also risen to the oc­ca­sion. Em­pan­el­ing of an in­ves­tiga­tive grand jury gave pros­e­cu­tors the tools needed to cut through the church’s in­sti­tu­tional bar­ri­ers to ar­rive at the truth. Penn­syl­va­nia At­tor­ney Gen­eral Josh Shapiro has worked hard to en­sure the grand jury’s re­port does not get rel­e­gated to col­lect dust on a shelf, but rather be­comes the im­pe­tus for re­form.

And then there is the Penn­syl­va­nia Leg­is­la­ture. It is crys­tal clear that ex­ist­ing state statutes are in­ad­e­quate to the task of pro­vid­ing vic­tims with a mech­a­nism for gain­ing com­pen­sa­tion for the men­tal and phys­i­cal an­guish they have suf­fered at the hands of clergy.

Re­lease of the grand jury re­port came at a time when the Leg­is­la­ture had ad­journed for a nearly three-month sum­mer re­cess. That left lit­tle time for law­mak­ers to act when they re­turned to ses­sion in mid-Septem­ber.

House Speaker Mike Turzai got be­hind what was termed a “com­pro­mise” plan that would open a two-year “win­dow” for vic­tims to file civil suits. This ac­tion is nec­es­sary be­cause many abuse cases date back decades and the statute of lim­i­ta­tions has ex­pired mean­ing vic­tims can no longer sue for fi­nan­cial com­pen­sa­tion.

This is a wide­spread and ex­tra­or­di­nary prob­lem be­cause in­sti­tu­tional cover-up cre­ated a cli­mate where vic­tims were in­tim­i­dated and there­fore did not feel able to step for­ward.

And so the lower cham­ber did its job — but the weak link in the chain of re­spon­si­ble ac­tion has be­come Se­nate Repub­li­can lead­er­ship, specif­i­cally Se­nate Pres­i­dent Pro Tem­pore Joseph Scar­nati. Sen. Scar­nati believes the “win­dow” is un­con­sti­tu­tional and has in­stead pro­posed a vic­tim’s com­pen­sa­tion fund — which has the of­fi­cial sup­port of the church.

That falls short of giv­ing vic­tims their day in court and al­low­ing them to seek com­pen­sa­tion on a case-by-case ba­sis. Sen. Scar­nati and by ex­ten­sion the en­tire state Se­nate is the one in­sti­tu­tion (aside from the church it­self) that has failed to be­come part of the so­lu­tion rather than part of the prob­lem.

Rather than stand in the way of a so­lu­tion, Scar­nati and the Se­nate should have ad­vanced the con­cept of a “win­dow,” and sent it along to Gov. Tom Wolf who was ex­pected to sign it into law. At that point, court chal­lenges will likely en­sure with the is­sue mak­ing its way to the Penn­syl­va­nia Supreme Court.

Let the process play out. To do oth­er­wise only adds to the suf­fer­ing of abuse vic­tims.

It is time to pur­sue ev­ery pos­si­ble rem­edy so they might be ap­pro­pri­ately com­pen­sated, ar­rive at some sort of clo­sure, and get on with their lives.

Low­man S. Henry Colum­nist

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