Should public schools pay sex-abuse damages?

"It is good to be King," writes Rep. Greg Lavelle, Republican leader in Delaware's House of Representatives, in response to my Sunday Inquirer column, which compared the current efforts in Pennsylvania and New Jersey to allow people who say they were raped or molested by Catholic priests many years ago to sue their local dioceses for cash damages, as happened in Delaware back in the late 2000s.

Lavelle is talking about the way state law protects public schools and school employees, hit by growing reports of statutory rape of students by staff, from the level of complaints and damages that drove Delaware's Catholic diocese to seek bankruptcy protection.

He challenges a statement in my column from plaintiff's lawyer Thomas Neuberger, who suggested that public schools pay student rape survivors less than Catholic institutions did because public schools haven't kept records on offenders as they move from place to place -- highly useful evidence -- like Catholic dioceses do.

Lavelle (who has kids in both public and Catholic schools) tells me Delaware's state law actually forbids holding public schools to the same level of fiscal accountability (and cash payouts) as Catholic schools. Public schools enjoy "sovereign immunity," Lavelle says. That's based on the old legal concept that the sovereign (the King, in English common law) can do no wrong; it's his kingdom; and the state, in America, is his successor.

Lavelle condemns "the state's inability to do what requires everyone else to do - protect children under their care." He was an original cosponsor of the law lifting Delaware's statute of limitations -- but he also "had an amendment to the original bill to raise sovereign immunity as needed."

He says Delaware's political establishment under Democratic Gov. Jack Markell "realized what a liability it might be," and "education unions certainly wanted nothing to do with it either, as it might open their members to legal actions, or take away money" that would otherwise go to staff expenses. under the law.  

So "they fought it tooth and nail," and the Democratic-dominated legislature voted against waiving sovereign immunity for cases of child rape on at least three occasions. "I offered to make the waiver prospective only so only assaults in the future would be covered and the protections under the law might help eliminate future victims - or compensate them." That failed, too. 

Result: for public schools that employed rapists yesterday (as opposed to private schools that employed rapists 10 or 20 years ago), says Lavelle, it's good to be king.