In the chronicles of creepy state history, Jerry Sandusky could be counted as an unintentional savior of child sex-abuse victims.
Before the former Penn State assistant football coach was charged with raping or molesting boys over a decade, few in Harrisburg would risk the wrath of their parish priests to aid young sex-abuse victims.
The mighty Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, which has spent more than $2 million on lobbying since 2007, convinced leery legislators that giving victims even a one-time, two-year window to sue over long-ago offenses would constitute an anti-Catholic crusade. Give greedy lawyers that power and they’d bankrupt a proudly charitable institution.
Implied in the threat: Only priests sodomized so many who seek legal remedies – and money – to heal. So if victims won their day in court, only the church would suffer the consequences.
In October, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput said any changes to Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations would have to be “for the good of the community as a whole.” He made clear that he “would not want the Catholic Church treated any differently.”
Chaput knew his statements would resonate with wary lawmakers. A month later, the best-known alleged pedophile in Pennsylvania is not a priest, but a former college football coach. Talk about a game changer.
A New View of Victims
In March, Philadelphia Democratic Reps. Michael McGeehan and Louise Bishop held a Capitol news conference heralding bills to reform civil statutes of limitations in child sex-abuse cases. Victims and journalists present outnumbered legislators. Within minutes, the bills went into the Judiciary Committee’s deep freeze.
Since the Sandusky scandal exploded and Pennsylvanians began praying for alleged victims of a coach instead of a cleric, Republican committee chairman Ron Marsico has been besieged by pleas to thaw his opposition to an extension. He refuses, in a 1,700-word letter sent to anyone who writes or calls. Undeterred, proponents are going around him.
On Monday, McGeehan intends to speak on the House floor in support of victims’ right to sue. How, you ask? By attaching an amendment to a Marsico bill about, of all things, bowling alleys. In so doing, McGeehan may force the debate he can’t get in committee.
“If this emotionally charged issue is heard in a post-Penn State environment,” he said of his gamble, “I think members will be reluctant to be on record voting against it.”
Also on Monday, departing GOP Rep. Dennis O’Brien will challenge party leaders by holding a public hearing they oppose in the Children and Youth Committee he chairs. He’s got a terrific lineup of prosecutors and advocates for one of his last acts before leaving the legislature to become a Philadelphia councilman.
“These people have to have an opportunity to tell their story,” O’Brien told me. “Someone’s got to take responsibility. Someone’s got to be accountable.”
Seeking Political Cover
I generally gag at the words bipartisan, bicameral commission. But it’s safe to say that without Sandusky, there is no way Gov. Corbett would be calling for an examination of how child sex-abuse victims are treated in this state. Corbett’s transition into office, after all, was led by the Philadelphia Archdiocese’s longtime attorney. The commission, according to Republican spokesman Steve Miskin, will have “whatever power we give it.” Except subpoena.
The group will almost surely call for stronger mandatory reporting requirements for adults who witness abuse and for costly penalties for those who keep quiet.
But will commission members support statute changes the church has demonized? And if they do recommend new pro-victim laws, have the Penn State allegations sparked enough widespread outrage to let politicians vote their conscience?
That depends on whom legislators are more afraid of: voters or the church.
Contact columnist Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @myantkinney on Twitter. Read her blog at philly.com/blinq.
Monica Yant Kinney, Inquirer Columnist
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Sun, Dec. 4, 2011