Sometimes I feel like I should pen a letter of apology to the Framers of the Constitution. They fundamentally understood that people are inevitably tempted to abuse power and that concentrations of power are dangerous. It was a fortuitous and sage combination of common sense and the Presbyterianism of Princeton at the time. To put it a bit more simply: power must be checked, or it will run amok, and that goes double for combinations of power. And, oh yes, those who have power will work hard to be unaccountable. Power without accountability is the gravest danger we can face.
With that as the foundation, we really should be able to do better. Instead, lawmakers are increasingly the unaccountable power-grabbing people the Framers warned us about. And nowhere are our elected officials failing more spectacularly right now than in the case of child sex abuse.
The good news is that there is an antidote, and the people need to administer it.
Let’s start with some facts: one in four girls and one in five boys are sexually abused. Children have been abused in apparently every conceivable venue where they are available to predatory adults. Those “safe havens” like pricey boarding schools and elite sports, and churches and synagogues, have turned out to be available venues for abuse. The sad march of the truth goes on: children who are hungry have been forced into the sex trade just to eat. Child pornography continues to explode, with trusted adults from priests to coaches recently identified.
As you ponder this ongoing series of scandals, witness recent developments, where politicians are so stuck in the mud of unaccountability that facts apparently don’t matter:
In Pennsylvania, where lawmakers have been “debating” the merits of obtaining justice for child sex abuse victims for over a decade, some members have latched onto an almost hilarious (if it were not so painful to the survivors) “discussion” of the constitutionality of reviving expired statutes of limitations. They have become positively expert on the “Remedies Clause.” The cases in Pennsylvania actually add up most logically to a conclusion that revival of expired SOLs is constitutional, as I testified, but one need not even go that far. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has not yet ruled on the issue, so it is an issue for the courts. That leaves the door open for Pennsylvania lawmakers to do what is right.
Yet, Pennsylvania’s Republicans (and even some Democrats) are embracing the Remedies Clause as a bar to reviving expired SOLs as though they have finally discovered a mystical high ground. It is, of course, the low ground in a state that has hosted more grand jury reports on child sex abuse than any state in the union. It is sad to see that the facts don’t yet matter. The constitutional posturing is a way of stepping aside from one of the most demanding problems of our day.
In New York, the pioneer who put child sex abuse victims on the map in that state, which is among the worst states in the country on child sex abuse, Assemblywoman Marge Markey, lost in a primary to a 29-year-old on the issue of a homeless shelter. All that she had done for the victims of New York was left by the wayside, as an apathetic electorate barely showed up for the primary. No doubt the bishops are dancing a jig, but New York is losing one of its most principled advocates in Albany, which is a terrible loss for the state as a whole, not just sex abuse survivors.
Then there is Washington, DC, where no president or member of Congress has ever uttered those three little dangerous words: “clergy sex abuse.” The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held hearings three years ago and just released a report on religious liberty. I testified, and I will leave to another day my quibbles with the doctrinal substance of the report. What amazes me is that the federal government in this era can release a report that seems to say that the only important religious liberty issue is “civil rights”—for adults. Has no one in DC seen Spotlight or read the news for, say, the last 15 years? The fact is that children are at deep risk of abuse and neglect in too many religious settings, and numerous laws make it easier to harm them and to get away with it.
Finally, there are the entrenched political parties, neither of which has taken up child sex abuse issues this election cycle, as I discuss here.
I would like to suggest that as children continue to be abused and as the existing victims are being ignored in so many venues, there is an antidote and it is the one the Framers would have prescribed: good people need to demand accountability in the ballot box. While we delegate governing authority to lawmakers, we also choose who has the power and who does not.
That is, we need to push for the candidates who will protect children; we need to demand to know our candidates’ positions on the child protection options; we need to arm ourselves with the facts to make our elected officials accountable; we need to vote; and we need to watch the representatives we choose closely.
Otherwise, our elected representatives’ power is theirs to squander as they wish. It’s a lot, but it is the only way representative democracy will carve out a pathway to liberty and justice for children. That’s right: it’s on us.