Window of opportunity closes for legislators to do the right thing
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.