The following commentary by Wilmington attorney Stephen E. Jenkins appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on June 5.
Pennsylvania House Bill 1947, which has now been sent to the Pennsylvania Senate, would largely eliminate the statute of limitations relating to allegations of child sexual abuse by private parties. Among other things, it would allow civil claims for abuse to be brought at any time until a victim is 50 years old. In addition, some – but not most – victims will be allowed to sue for abuse that happened decades ago.
Many politicians and plaintiffs’ lawyers say that this represents long-needed “reform” and “justice.” I have a different perspective.
I was the volunteer attorney for a variety of Catholic institutions in Delaware after a similar bill was passed. Far from justice and reform, I saw the devastation it caused and the unfairness it created.
Supporters of HB 1947 claim that not one school, church, or charitable activity has been closed down in states that have passed similar legislation. That claim is wrong.
In Delaware, for example, one excellent inner-city school, St. Paul’s, which served a primarily poor Hispanic population, was forced to shutter its doors because the money it needed to operate went instead to settle lawsuits. Another school, Pope John Paul II, closed only months after the settlement because it had a sudden financial emergency and the money for such emergencies had been taken for the settlement.
Nor did the cuts end there. Ten percent of the diocesan employees were laid off, and Catholic Charities, Catholic cemeteries, and many parishes were required to chip in millions of their badly needed dollars to settle the cases. Those payments reduced the ability of all of them to carry out their ministries.
And where did the money come from? Not from the abusers or wrongdoers, who didn’t pay anything.
Instead, every dime originally came from members of the church who donated it to help the church carry out its ministries. In the end, a significant percentage of the amount paid in settlement went to lawyers and legal costs.
To make matters worse, the Delaware bill was discriminatory. It allowed suits by victims against private institutions and churches but prevented most victims of government employees from suing for past abuse. HB 1947 does the same thing.
The Pennsylvania bill does not permit victims of government employees to sue for past sexual abuse. It also requires a victim of future sexual abuse to prove that a state institution was “grossly negligent,” a much tougher standard.
Yet, by all indications, there is far more sexual abuse of children in government institutions than in private ones. Just a few days ago the Inquirer carried an alarming story about possible sexual abuse and cover-ups occurring in the Plum Borough School District, in Western Pennsylvania. If these claims are true, it will show that at least one school district has failed to put into place the child-protection steps that private institutions started implementing decades ago.
Why the double standard? Why are victims of sexual abuse in a public school any less deserving or important than private-school victims?
If justice demands that private-school victims be given a chance to sue for past injuries, what kind of justice is it that says that public-school victims have no such rights?
Child sexual abuse is evil, and the abusers deserve to be punished for their terrible crimes. But HB 1947 isn’t going to punish a single abuser. Instead, it will almost certainly result in closed schools and reduced ministries, thus hurting the innocent – particularly children and the poor.
Meanwhile, victims who suffered precisely the same horrifying abuse in public schools will get nothing, merely because the abuse was committed by a government employee.
How does such a bill represent justice?