Clergy abuse survivors, advocates continue push to change Pennsylvania law

November 8, 2018 GMT

Clergy abuse survivors and their advocates remain adamant that their battle to hold the Catholic church responsible for decades of abuse and cover-ups in Pennsylvania is far from over.

Members of the state Senate failed to act on a House-passed bill that encompassed a recommendation from a statewide grand jury that investigated decades of clergy sexual abuse.

Those measures called for creating a two-year window of opportunity for adult survivors of clergy child sexual abuse to sue the church.

Less than 24 hours after senators left the last voting day of the session without addressing the issue, the U.S. Attorney in Philadelphia on Thursday confirmed his office had issued subpoenas to all eight Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania seeking records relating to clergy abuse and cover-ups.

U.S. Attorney Bill McCain’s move was the latest fallout from the August state grand jury report that detailed allegations of rampant clergy sexual abuse and cover-ups across the state’s Catholic dioceses over the last 70 years.

Abuse survivors last week descended on Harrisburg, visiting senators and lining halls of the Capitol, reading aloud from sections of the roughly 900-page grand jury report. They and their advocates remain optimistic.

Kristen Houser, of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center and the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, was among those pushing for the window of opportunity bill. Houser said the Senate’s failure to act pointed to a lack of support for an alternative measure supported by Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County.

“We take solace in that this went much differently this year than it did two years ago, when the Senate stripped the window of opportunity out of the bill and sent it back to the House,” Houser said.

Scarnati had previously expressed doubts that a retroactive window for lawsuits would be allowed under the state constitution.

Last week, he proposed an alternative measure supported by the Catholic church and the Insurance Federation that would have given survivors a window of opportunity to sue priests -- who have taken a vow of poverty -- but not the church, itself.

Outgoing State House Majority Leader David Reed, R-Indiana, made it clear that Scarnati’s version of the bill would not be acceptable to the House. Steve Miskin, a spokesman for the the House Republican Caucus, said House members went home on 12-hour callback -- ready to act should the Senate have done anything.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, Gov. Tom Wolf and even Wolf’s opponent, Republican Sen. Scott Wagner, all publicly called for the Senate to pass the window-of-opportunity measure.

Scarnati kept the Senate in session late Wednesday night, trying to build support for his proposal. He then sent lawmakers home without acting on either bill. He later came under fire from Democrats and several Republican senators for failing to bring the House measure to the floor.

State Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, a clergy child sexual abuse survivor, testified before the grand jury and first promoted the window-of-opportunity measure two years ago. He is encouraged.

“We just saw the Justice Department is stepping in to investigate. That sets up another whole ball game,” Rozzi said. “And I think we found out we have support for a two-year window of opportunity to sue perpetrators and institutions. Now we just need Sen. Scarnati to step away and run the bill.

“This isn’t over yet. The victims are united.”

Pennsylvania Victim advocate Jennifer Storm also saw the Senate’s failure to act as a measure of the support for the window of opportunity.

“The entire Senate Democratic side was clearly with us, and Scott Wagner has been with us since the last session,” she said. “We know there must be enough senators on the Republican side supporting it as well, because it didn’t go to a vote.”