LAWMAKERS AND ADVOCATES URGE ACTION ON CHILD SEX ABUSE BILLS
By Catharine Conner
Representatives Michael McGeehan (D-Philadelphia) and Louise Bishop (D-Philadelphia) were joined by colleagues and advocates to announce the reintroduction of child sex abuse legislation and a renewed push to get the legislation enacted. Members present included Representatives Tim Briggs (D-Montgomery), Michelle Brownlee (D-Philadelphia), Mary Jo Daley (D-Montgomery), Ed Gainey (D-Allegheny), Kevin Haggerty (D-Lackawanna), Stephen Kinsey (D-Philadelphia), Joe Markosek (D-Allegheny), Duane Milne (R-Chester), Tom Murt (R-Montgomery), Cherelle Parker (D-Philadelphia), Mark Rozzi (D-Berks), Steve Santarsiero (D-Bucks), Mike Schlossberg (D-Lehigh), and Ron Waters (D-Philadelphia).
Rep. Bishop shared her personal story as a victim of child sexual abuse to explain why she introduced HB 237. Bishop, who came out last year as a victim, described her struggle with keeping the abuse a secret and why it took her so long for her to finally disclose it. She reiterated that HB 237, which would remove the statute of limitations on criminal charges and civil lawsuits, was not about money. She stressed that the legislation is about allowing the women and men who were abused as children to seek justice and receive the help they need to heal. She believes she was sent to the House of Representative to take care of the victims. As a mother and grandmother, Bishop said that she wants to help those who have been abused. She repeated that “it is time to put victims first” and asked for the legislation to move out of Committee, be considered by all legislators and signed into law.
Rep. McGeehan stated that he has introduced HB 238, which would open a two year window in child sexual abuse cases to provide victims with the opportunity to civilly bring suit against a person or entity. Additionally, his legislation would seek to make child sexual abuse an exception to the sovereign immunity defense to allow victims to sue public entities. He urged the House Judiciary Committee to consider these bills and commended his fellow colleagues for taking a stand against a powerful institution that is trying to stop the legislation. He also thanked former Philadelphia DA Lynne Abraham for convening the investigation of the Philadelphia Archdiocese and opening eyes nationwide on institutional abuse.
Abraham offered her support for the legislation proposed by Bishop and McGeehan, noting that unless you talk to victims, you don’t know how bad it is. She cited revelations of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, Jehovah Witness, and Boy Scouts of America, and stressed that child sexual abuse is not restricted to religion, creed, race or location. Abraham said that it is a national problem that must be grappled with by the legislature. She pointed out that the legislation is about giving the victims a voice. She also stressed that legislation is not about money, noting that money cannot cure the brokenness of a human being that has been abused. She urged consideration of the legislation, adding that the Catholic Conference will be opposing the bills, including the bishops and archdioceses that covered up abuse and continued to protect the member of the clergy.
Next, Rep. Mark Rozzi (D-Berks) shared his personal story as a victim of child sexual abuse, underscoring the fact that the pain never goes away. He described his decision to finally come out as a victim after his second childhood friend committed suicide and he described the guilt he felt for not coming out sooner, noting that he felt partially to blame. He questioned whether he had come out sooner, if more lives could have been saved. He promised to never turn his back on the children of Pennsylvania and remarked that he was appalled by the task force report saying that “the elephant is still in the room”. He concluded that he will continue to fight for what is right.
Rep. Steven Santarsiero (D-Bucks) echoed the sentiments of his colleagues. He stated that this legislation is about ensuring that those perpetrating the crimes are brought to justice. He called on the House and Senate Leadership on both sides of the aisle to bring the bills to allow justice for those victimized.
Rep. Thomas Murt (R-Montgomery) reiterated that it is time to get this legislation enacted. He opined that the statute of limitations protect the child abusers from prosecution and prevent victims from moving forward. He said that it is time to open the window and anything less is justice denied.
Rep. Duane Milne (R-Chester) spoke in support of the legislation. He noted that his commitment to the issue evolved over time. He said he was fortunate not to have any family members or know anyone that was sexually abused. However, as he heard more and more stories over the years, he became aware of the issue and convinced that child sexual abuse is not isolated events. He encouraged the passage of the legislation to provide every child in Pennsylvania with a safe childhood.
Rep. Michelle Brownlee (D-Philadelphia) and Rep. Cherelle Parker (D-Philadelphia) offered their support for the legislation. Brownlee highlighted the fact that there is no statute of limitations for murder. When a child is sexually abused, she said, the child is murdered through their emotions, adding that the sexual abuse kills a child’s confidence and something they will never get back – their childhood.
Professor Marci Hamilton of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University and the author of “Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect its Children,” indicated her support for the statute of limitation legislation as the only way to get to the truth. “Statute-of-limitations reform is empowering to victims and their families, and terrifying to pedophiles and their supporting institutions,” she said. Hamilton believes the legislation will level the playing field so victims can come forward when they are ready and perpetrators will be put on notice that they do not have a safe haven in an arbitrary legal technicality. She cited a recent revelation in California to illustrate that the window legislation works.
Maureen Martinez, president of Justice for PA Kids, also expressed her support for the legislation. She stated that she became involved in the issue and formed the coalition after she learned that the priest who baptized her children was put on administrative leave for child sexual abuse. “It is a black and white issue – either you are for the predators or the victims,” she said. She concluded that the coalition will not rest until victims get their day in court when they are ready.
John Salveson, founder and President of the Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse, shared his story as a child sexual abuse victim. Like the other speakers, he too, indicated that the legislation is not about money. He also referenced the legislation enacted in California. “This week, the LA Times broke a story that Catholic Church officials concealed abuse involving 75 priests and 500 hundred victims,” Salveson said. He pointed out that the files were released as part of a civil action brought by child sex abuse victims covered by a one-year window. He stressed that without the window, there would be no trial, and without the trial, there would be no discovery of the documents and without the documents, the abuse would not be exposed.
Lastly, Robert Nelson, a victim of child sexual abuse by a coach/teacher and Jim Polo, a child sexual abuse victim of a Boy Scout leader, shared their compelling stories.
Rep. McGeehan concluded the press conference by praising and thanking the advocates and reiterating his commitment.
A packet of information was distributed at the press conference.