Op-ed: Harrisburg must give justice to sex assault victims

“Where is the outrage?”

By State Reps. Thomas P. Murt and Mark Rozzi

Former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo used to ask, rhetorically, “Where is the outrage?” when he encountered injustice in his beloved city. We asked that question of our colleagues in Harrisburg in the years-long wake of the grand jury reports from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Months ago, we warned the commonwealth that the next grand jury report concerning child sex abuse was coming, and that it would be worse than the previous ones. Well, it is here, and we ask again of our colleagues in Harrisburg, “Where is the outrage”? Moreover, “What are we going to do about it?” What are we going to do with the results of the current grand jury report documenting the most vile, repulsive and disgusting acts of child sexual abuse at the hands of many diocesan priests across several dioceses in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania?

The current grand jury report is similar to the previous ones in that it was about Roman Catholic priests who sexually abused children, sometimes for decades. It is also about Roman Catholic Church leadership that covered up the abuse, allowed pedophile priests whom they knew were sexually exploiting children to continue abusing, and mistreated victims and their families to coerce them into silence. But the magnitude and belligerence of the cover-up documented in the current grand jury report surpasses all the others. Believers would concur that if Jesus were in Pennsylvania right now, he would be kicking in the doors of diocesan offices, and overturning desks about this one. Church leadership is blaming the priests, but make no mistake: there is plenty of blame to go around, and leadership is as culpable as the priests who committed the horrific crimes. What happened is a textbook example of institutional risk management taking priority over the protection of children from sexual predators.

So, where is the outrage? Perhaps it was left in Harrisburg a year ago when Senate Bill 261 was “left on the table,” a legislative term used to describe a bill that has run its course and is practically lifeless. The current grand jury report may, however, provide the impetus to restart the process for Senate Bill 261. Any elected official who is serious about protecting all children in the future, affording some small measure of justice to past victims, and standing up to the special interests of the Insurance Federation, the Catholic Church or any other institution that exposes children to sexual abuse, could start by passing Senate Bill 261 with the Murt amendment.

Senate Bill 261 eliminates the statute of limitations for civil cases regarding child sexual abuse, prospectively, that is, going forward. However, it does absolutely nothing for victims who have missed the statute of limitations. Many of these victims missed the statute of limitations due to the church stringing them along, telling them to pray for their abuser(s), or because they accepted a settlement with a confidentiality clause. The statute of limitations is the best friend of the sexual abuser of a child. The Murt amendment would open a finite, two-year window for victims who have missed the statute of limitations to file civil suits against their abusers and/or the organizations that allowed the abusers to sexually exploit children. Opening the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution is unconstitutional but opening it for civil cases involving child sexual abuse is constitutional. Senate Bill 261 without the Murt amendment allows sexual abusers to escape accountability for their crimes and denies justice to victims of child sexual abuse.

You might ask, who would oppose Senate Bill 261 with the Murt amendment? The answer is simple: the Insurance Federation, the Roman Catholic Church and any other institution, religious or otherwise, that protects its assets rather than victims of sexual abuse. The Insurance Federation will not tolerate paying out claims to victims of the priests who were sexual abusers, since they provide insurance coverage to cover such claims. The Catholic Church would not endure being penalized financially for allowing their priests to sexually abuse innocent children or admit guilt that would further damage the church’s reputation. In fairness, the Catholic Church is not the only religious institution to perpetuate child abuse, but it is among the largest. Other institutions, religious or otherwise, would not abide the loss of assets or reputation, either. The wellbeing of innocent children ranks lower than money and reputation for them.

The entire free world is watching Harrisburg this time, wondering how we will address the attorney general’s report. Government leadership needs to find the courage to avoid the lobbyists, disregard the special interests, ignore those who have contributed campaign funds, and just do the right thing. For our part, we will not rest until justice is achieved for the victims of child sexual abuse in our commonwealth, in the form of a window in the statute of limitations, such as that proposed in Senate Bill 261 with the Murt amendment. ••

Rep. Thomas P. Murt is a Republican and represents parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery counties. Rep. Mark Rozzi is a Democrat and represents part of Berks County.