I can’t help but think about Bill Conlin this week.
Conlin, you’ll surely remember, was the legendary baseball writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, a man who by the end of his career had gotten to be bigger than his newspaper. He was last seen fleeing into retirement after the Inquirer uncovered decades-old allegations that he had molested young children in his New Jersey neighborhood.
If the allegations are true, Conlin almost got away with it. Yes, there’s the ignominy of living out your final years as a pariah. But there will be no criminal prosecutions—Jersey’s 1996 law abolishing statutes of limits on sex crimes was not retroactive—and, as yet, not even one civil suit has ever materialized. There is no time spent in prison, no forfeiture of the small fortune he made writing about a game. His victims never got their day in court, and probably never will.
Now, in Pennsylvania, there’s a new move afoot to make sure molestation victims get their day in court. A bill before the PA House would offer victims a two-year exemption from the statute of limitations in order to file suit against their attackers and the institutions that protected them. It’s based on similar laws passed in California and Delaware that resulted in 800 and 100 lawsuits, respectively.
There are lots of reasons for this—some of them even sensible: It’s not fair to insurers, for example, to let them believe they and their clients have evaded legal and financial responsibility for alleged crimes, only to have the law changed after the fact. That’s gaming the system, and it’s not an unfair criticism of the proposal.
But I was struck by this assertion in PennLive’s coverage of the bill debate:
“Opponents, meanwhile, have argued it’s not fair to expose potential suspects and institutions to financial liability for allegations that may have little supporting evidence, and they say it’s patently unfair to insurers to change deadlines after they’ve expired.
What that bolded section means, of course, is that many legislators in Harrisburg don’t really take child molestation allegations that seriously. Rather than let a court weigh the evidence, they’ve decided on their own that there’s no there there.
Which is insane, especially in Pennsylvania of all states. After a decade of church scandals and a couple of years of chaos at Penn State, you’d think that the state’s leaders would know better, much better, than to be so literally dismissive of abuse claims. Victims have never been encouraged to come forward to demand justice: They’ve often been dismissed, told to hush up before an investigator or a jury can weigh the evidence of their accusations.
A two-year window for such lawsuits would not make it easier for accusers to win those lawsuits. The standards of evidence would remain the same; accusers would have to prove their cases before a judge and jury. Indeed, after decades, it might be difficult for accusers to summon enough evidence against old attackers—even in civil courts, which have a lower standard of evidence than criminal courts. Some cases would be dismissed; others would probably succeed.
But all of that’s up to a court to decide, if only the PA House will let it. It’s not the legislative branch’s job to judge the likelihood of success that big lawyers might have in bringing a lawsuit. It is the House’s job to decide whether or not molestation victims deserve a second, and probably final, chance at justice. That can’t happen if the cases have been judged before they’re heard.