Justice Is Put on Hold

Philadelphia Inquirer
July 17, 2006

The one-year anniversary of a shocking grand jury report on sexual abuse of children in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia will soon come and go - without any legislative remedies from Harrisburg.

It's troubling that lawmakers were not moved to action by outrage stemming from the jury's Sept. 21, 2005, allegations that church leaders long shielded abusive clergy. (Church officials disputed the jury's account.)

"It's like back in school: No one was paying attention," said state Rep. Dennis M. O'Brien (R., Phila.), recalling the indifference that greeted several reform measures introduced in late 2005, and still languishing.

Yet the grand jury report (see: called for a reasoned, two-fold response to any abuse of children, not just by clergy: First, protect potential victims by enhancing abuse-reporting rules, mandating background checks, and extending statutes so victims can get justice even if, as is common, they do not come forward until years later. Second, provide a measure of justice to long-ago victims by opening up a one-time window for civil actions against abusers and those who may have protected them.

These policy changes would build on the good work being done in-house at the archdiocese under Cardinal Justin Rigali. The cardinal, who last year offered his "deep apologies to those who have suffered sexual abuse by a priest or employee of the church," hired veteran victims advocate Mary Achilles, who is speeding services to victims of sexual abuse. He also reached out through a high-profile Web site and with a toll-free victims' line (1-888-800-8780).

As a group, though, Catholic leaders across Pennsylvania have not supported the most substantive legal change - putting them on the wrong side of justice. While the Philadelphia archdiocese backed statute changes affecting future abusers, local church leaders joined the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the churches' insurance companies in opposing civil suits for long-ago abuse cases, on the basis of cost.

So effective was the lobbying that Harrisburg lawmakers have not even held extensive hearings to hear directly from abuse victims. That's a disgrace.

By the one-year mark of the grand jury report, though, lawmakers will have such compelling testimony on their desks - in the form of a video produced by SNAP, the Philadelphia abuse victims group.

In their own words, and those of family members, a half-dozen victims identified only by their first names speak of their ongoing anguish from attacks by priests decades ago.

There's white-haired Bob, 70, of Bethlehem, speaking of being fondled by a priest in the late '40s; Jeff of Altoona, describing his rape while forced to dress in a girl's school uniform; and a Bellefonte woman whose husband, abused as a boy, committed suicide.

These and other victims of abuse - whether their attackers were clergy or not - are looking to authorities to help right a terrible wrong. How long must they wait?


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