By Ronnie Polaneczky
Philadelphia Daily News, Daily News Columnist
So the REV. James Brennan took to local airwaves this week to proclaim his innocence. I guess that’s to be expected, given the scathing press he’s gotten since being named in the latest Philadelphia grand-jury investigation of child sex abuse in the Archdiocese.
So why not impugn his accuser’s mental state? “I don’t know what’s going on inside his mind,” Brennan told WPHT-AM radio host Chris Stigall on Tuesday morning.
Brennan’s lawyer, Richard DeSipio, added that Brennan’s accuser has a rap sheet – an irrelevant point given that the accuser had no rap sheet as a child.
At least, in this instance, we won’t have to take Brennan’s word for it that he’s innocent, nor his accuser’s that he’s not. Because Brennan has been criminally charged, a jury will get to hear both sides and deliver a verdict based on information that we’re not privy to right now.
And then everyone, as best they can, can move on.
Won’t that be refreshing? And wouldn’t it be great if more alleged victims and more alleged perps could move on after a day in court, too – because they’d no longer have to describe themselves as “alleged”?
If bills in the Pennsylvania Judiciary Committee ever make it into law, such a scenario might come to pass more often.
House Bill 878, introduced by state Rep. Mike McGeehan, would give victims of child sex abuse a two-year window to bring civil charges against perps who currently can’t be charged because the statute of limitations has lapsed on their crimes.
And House Bill 832, by state Rep. Louise Williams Bishop, would abolish altogether the statute of limitations on criminal and civil lawsuits for child-sexual-abuse cases going forward.
Similar bills have opened windows in California and Delaware, with jaw-dropping results.
In California, more than 800 people took advantage of the window and filed suits. Among them were 508 victims of priest sexual abuse, who settled claims against the Los Angeles Catholic Diocese for $660 million.
But not only clergy have been brought to justice for their long-ago betrayal of children’s innocence. In Delaware, as a result of the civil window, a prominent Common Pleas judge admitted to molesting one boy decades ago and settled a case against a second accuser.
If we cracked open a civil window in Pennsylvania, victims here would also get their chance to reckon in a court of law with what was done to them.
But, trust me, the proposed bills will never become law if the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference tanks them the way it did similar proposed legislation in 2008. The conference, the politically powerful public-affairs arm of the state’s dioceses, chaired by none other than Philadelphia Cardinal Justin Rigali, vehemently opposed that bill.
And it went nowhere.
Opponents to the window argue that accusations are hard to defend decades after the fact, so grave injustice would be done to the falsely accused.
But old cases are even harder to prosecute, since the burden of proof is on the accuser.
“All this bill does is open the door for an accuser to make his case,” says Pam Oddo, executive assistant to McGeehan. “We’ve gotten nothing but support so far, so we’re hopeful that the atmosphere has changed around this issue.”
If the Philadelphia Archdiocese were serious about dealing with the horror that has rotted it from within, Rigali would throw his weight behind the bill.
Not just because victims of priests deserve justice, but because all victims of child sex abuse do.
Two weeks ago, the archdiocese, in a public statement, noted petulantly that “the problem of sexual abuse of minors is being addressed, albeit imperfectly, in only one sector of society, the Catholic Church.”
Youth sports organizations, public schools, community groups and other faith communities all report incidents of abuse, it noted.
But “few have been forced to look as extensively at the horror of child sexual abuse perpetrated within their organizations and to enact broad policies to prevent it.”
So why doesn’t Rigali support the civil window, so all organizations – not just his own – are forced to clean house?
Sadly, two grand jury reports have made the answer abundantly clear:The archdiocese will always protect its assets over supporting justice.