Op-Ed: Senate Bill 261: State Must Provide Justice for Victims of Child Sex Abuse

For many pundits and critics, the legacy of the 2017-18 Legislative Session will be determined by the final outcome of Senate Bill 261, a measure that addresses the criminal and civil Statutes of Limitations in cases of childhood sexual assault.

I want to stress that as the Senate again takes up this bill, the welfare and redress of victims remains the focus of this legislation. That has been the case ever since we unanimously approved and sent the bill to the House of Representatives on February 1, 2017.

Unfortunately, it languished there for 20 months.  We could have held public hearings to determine the best path forward if the House had sent it back in a more timely fashion. Instead, we were given a handful of days to consider the many ramifications of the amendments made by the House.

Anyone who has taken the time, as I have, to read through the grand jury report detailing the horrendous crimes that occurred in the Catholic Church over several decades knows that this has to be made right.

I have met with Senator Joseph Scarnati, the Pro-Tempore of the Senate and prime sponsor of Senate Bill 261 on several occasions over the last month and I’ve talked to many constituents and legislators. To be sure, there is a wide spectrum of thoughts about how to “make this right” for victims.

I strongly believe the final version of Senate Bill 261 that is sent to the Governor must include the four provisions detailed in the Grand Jury report:

1) Elimination of the criminal statute of limitations for child sexual abuse going forward.

2) Creation of a two-year window that removes the current statute of limitations.

3) Establishment of penalties for failure to report suspected abuse to law enforcement.

4) Elimination of civil confidentiality agreements regarding the sexual abuse of children.

Certainly, the most controversial – and perhaps unconstitutional – component is the two-year window for civil claims.  Should this be challenged in court, and if the petitioners prevail, there would be no justice for any of these victims.

With that in mind, I have been advocating to Senate leadership and my fellow Senators that Senate Bill 261 should be amended to include a victims’ compensation fund.

A two-pronged approach would give victims the opportunity to have their day in court or they could receive the compensation they deserve in a timely manner without waiting for the resolution of the expected court battle over the constitutionality of breaking the statute of limitations.

A victims’ fund would also protect those who don’t want to go to court in the event that a small group of victims win a massive lawsuit that bankrupts each Diocese.  If that were to occur, a few would benefit financially and the rest would be left with virtually no compensation, victimizing them yet again.

I believe all victims should be compensated properly and be given a way to have some sense of closure to the suffering they’ve endured.

Finally, I believe Senate Bill 261, as amended by the House of Representatives is flawed in that it puts public and private institutions on different playing fields. All victims should be treated fairly and equally. That separate scale for justice should be eliminated and my proposed victims’ compensation fund should be included in the final bill that is sent to the Governor.

Regardless of what happens with the final language in this bill, I want to ensure the people of Northwestern Pennsylvania that I have been proactive in seeking an approach that satisfies all victims instead of a one-size-fits-all approach. I’m optimistic that some version of my victims’ fund will be in the final bill, but like any good policy all sides must agree on the best way to move forward.

Contact:          Matt Azeles                 mazeles@pasen.gov

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