Commentary

Adult victims of child sex abuse deserve a fair shot at justice | Patrick Beaty

Asking voters to decide unrelated questions on the same ballot places victims’ hopes at risk

Survivors of clerical sexual abuse rally at the state Capitol on Monday, 5/24/21, calling for passage of legislation that would create a two-year window allowing them to sue in civil court (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek).

By Patrick Beaty

Nearly four years ago, a Pennsylvania statewide investigating grand jury issued a scathing report detailing decades of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests and a coverup by the church hierarchy.

The grand jury report included several recommendations for reform of the criminal and civil justice systems, including creation of a two-year “civil window” allowing adults to sue for damages for abuse that occurred when they were minors and where a suit would otherwise be barred by the statute of limitations.

Due to a lengthy disagreement over whether a retroactive window would require a constitutional amendment, and a tragic bureaucratic blunder that added years to the amendment timeline, thousands of abuse victims are still waiting for their chance at justice. And unless Senate Republican leaders relent and allow a statutory fix to pass, it appears victims will have to wait at least another year because the earliest a constitutional change can appear on the ballot will be at the primary election in 2023.

The civil window for abuse victims may not be the only question on the ballot next spring. Right now, there is a long list of constitutional amendment proposals vying for attention in the State capital and many of them are highly controversial. A big unknown is whether a strong “Vote No” campaign against one or more of those other proposals might also jeopardize a voter referendum on the civil window.

In recent Pennsylvania history, voters have been quite agreeable when given the chance to amend their Constitution. In the past 60 years, they rejected only seven proposed changes, or about 10 percent of the 69 questions that have appeared on the ballot during that time span.

Advocates again call on Pa. Senate to open two-year window for child sex abuse survivors

Many voters seem to approach ballot questions with an optimistic belief that their vote will have a positive impact. The assumption being that the government would not be asking for their approval unless it was needed to affect positive change.

It’s also the case that most constitutional amendment ballot questions have just not been that controversial. And we haven’t seen much in the way of organized opposition, with one notable exception.

In 1989, voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to allow reductions in real property tax rates in exchange for commensurate increases in local income taxes. Despite broad support among local government officials and others who longed for a solution to Pennsylvania’s over-reliance on property taxes to fund basic education and local government services, the amendment failed at the polls. A low-budget, but highly effective, opposition campaign helped convince voters that the shift to local income taxes was a bad deal, partly because there was no guarantee against future increases in real property taxes.

It would be easy to discount the significance of the failed Local Tax Reform referendum. You could say it was a uniquely easy target for a Vote No campaign simply because it involved taxes, and voters weren’t willing to take a risk that they might have to pay more.

But it could also be seen as a cautionary tale of how voter behavior on ballot questions can be affected by negative noise and uncertainty.

Bill to extend legal window for child sex abuse survivors unlikely to see a Pa. Senate vote

The recent flood of partisan bills amending the Constitution has triggered a backlash from a broad coalition of advocacy groups.

Some, including Fair Districts PA, object to threats posed to the just-completed congressional and legislative redistricting and to judicial independence. The coalition includes many other organizations deeply concerned about preserving the separation of governmental powers and about ballot access and voting rights.

Will any of those issues make it all the way through the legislative process and appear on the ballot next year? Or will they all be overshadowed by the abortion issue as a result of the decision now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court? Right now, it’s anyone’s guess. But one thing is clear.

Expect to see strong coordinated pushback against any effort to undermine our democratic institutions or the privacy rights of Pennsylvania citizens.

None of that opposition would be targeted at the two-year civil window, which currently enjoys strong support among voters according to recent opinion surveys.

But its proponents already know they will likely face well-funded opposition from the insurance industry and other institutions that are potential defendants in future claims for damages. The last thing victims need to worry about is the risk that confusion over other unrelated issues could tip the balance in a close vote. It’s up to Republican leaders in Harrisburg to eliminate any risk of that kind of collateral damage.

The best solution would be for Republican lawmakers to abandon their ill-advised assault on the Pennsylvania Constitution. Barring that, Republicans who control the General Assembly must make sure those other issues do not appear on the same ballot with the civil window.

Years of delay have already caused enough unnecessary pain. Lawmakers should not add more obstacles in the long road to justice.

Patrick Beaty is the volunteer legislative director of Fair Districts PA.  His work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.

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