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 bring civil claims for abuse that already happened.
Many politicians and plaintiffs’ lawyers say that this represents long-needed “reform” and “justice.” I have a very different perspective. I was the volunteer attorney for a variety of Catholic institutions in Delaware after a similar bill was passed, and similarly celebrated for the “justice” it would bring.
Far from justice and reform, I saw the devastation it caused and the unfairness it created.
Supporters of HB 1947 claim in media reports 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 Hispanic population, was forced to shutter its doors because the money it needed to operate went instead to settle the 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. At least one other school suffered a similar fate.
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 probably almost half of the amount paid in settlement went to lawyers and legal costs.
To make matters worse, the Delaware bill was discriminatory. It allowed suits against private institutions and churches by victims but prevented most victims of government employees from suing for past abuse.
HB 1947 does the same thing. It 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 higher standard than private institutions.
Why this 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 can anyone say that such a bill represents “reform,” much less justice?
Stephen E. Jenkins is a lawyer in Wilmington, Del.