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Shapiro Talks Immigration, Ongoing Efforts to Address Church Abuse

Matt Rourke
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro stopped at the University of Pittsburgh to discuss campus safety on Wednesday. But he also made a visit to Holy Family Institute in Emsworth, to check on the plight of immigrant children who have been separated from their parents as a result of Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy.  

“It’s really important for us to separate the extraordinarily inhumane policy put forth by the Trump Administration … and the extraordinarily humane treatment they’re receiving,” he said afterwards.

In all, 2,654 children were separated from parents under the policy. In June, Shapiro joined 15 other Attorneys General in filing a lawsuit over the zero tolerance policy. A federal judge demanded that the administration reunite the children with their parents by a deadline originally set for last month. But more than 500 children are still awaiting return to their parents.

In an interview with 90.5 WESA, Shapiro said he could not disclose the number, ages, or home countries of the children still being housed at Holy Family. But he said the children “are in very good condition: Sister Linda [Yankoski, Holy Family's President and CEO] and her team are caring so well for them … The children and their parents have been connected telephonically. They know where the parents are. They’re working through the process to reunite them.”

In court action, the Trump administration said that the parents of most of the children still in custody have already been deported. A smaller number present “red flags” related to backgrounds. But Shapiro said there was a simpler reason for what he called “an epic failure." 

“I think it’s because this administration is just totally inept ... This administration not only put forth a cruel policy: They were absolutely inept in carrying it out."

“I know there are some people … who might be saying to themselves, ‘Well, maybe these parents shouldn’t have tried to come across the border illegally,’’ Shapiro said. “We need comprehensive immigration reform. … But we shouldn’t allow the Trump administration to use these children as pawns.”

Shapiro’s Pittsburgh visit took place even as Pennsylvania was still rocked by revelations in a grand jury report on child sex abused in the Catholic Church. This week alone, Shapiro gave interviews to CNN, NBC’s Today Show, CBS This Morning and The New York Times.

He said he’s not done yet.  Since the grand jury report was released, he said, more than 820 people have called a hotline for reporting abuse as of Wednesday morning.

“I can’t get into the specifics as to what people are saying on those calls,” Shapiro said. But, "this is very much an active and ongoing investigation.”

Shapiro is also pledging to advocate for reforms to state law that will, among other things, make it easier to pursue abusers in court.

“I don’t know how any thoughtful lawmaker can read this grand jury report, learn the horrifying sickening details of what occurred … and then see these common-sense reforms the grand jurors have put forth, and not vote in favor of them."

State legislators are expected to take up the proposals next month. Shapiro previously served in the state House, and said lobbyists for insurance companies—and the Pennsylvania Conference of Catholics—had foiled earlier efforts. He predicted this time would be different.

“What has occurred historically is that powerful lobbyists representing … the various dioceses around Pennsylvania or the insurance-company lobbyists have pushed lawmakers to be against reforms like this. I think the days of taking orders from [those] lobbyists are over. … People are sick and tired of these institutions getting away with it, and they are certainly sick and tired of having lawmakers defend that status quo."

One key point of contention concerns an effort to roll back the statute of limitations on civil suits filed from abuse. There’s broad support for allowing people to sue over such abuse beyond the current deadline, which expires after a victim turns 31. But some support a “window” that would allow older victims to sue retroactively, no matter when the abuse took place.

Some Senate Republicans  have questioned whether such a measure is constitutional: Bishop David Zubik told 90.5 WESA this week he couldn’t speak to the church's stance on that provision. Shapiro showed no such trepidation.

“A civil window is constitutional, period," he said. "It has been tested in other states and held constitutional. Furthermore, it’s not up to some state Senator to make that determination. It’s up to the Supreme Court.”

"We have a lifetime of pain and suffering and counselling and needs for these victims as a result of the abuse and cover-up at the hands of clergy," he said. "I don’t think anyone in their right mind would begrudge one of these victims from getting some resources from the Catholic Church to help them pay for their counselling.”