Church abuse bill in limbo after hitting wall in Senate
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Legislation to respond to Pennsylvania’s landmark grand jury report accusing hundreds of Roman Catholic priests of sexually abusing children over decades stalled on the Legislature’s final scheduled voting day of 2018 amid a showdown over a key provision.
The dispute came down to opposition by the Senate’s huge Republican majority to a provision recommended by the grand jury and backed by Attorney General Josh Shapiro, Gov. Tom Wolf, the House of Representatives, Senate Democratic leaders and victim advocates.
That provision would give now-adult victims of child sexual abuse a two-year reprieve from time limits in state law that otherwise would bar them from suing perpetrators and institutions that covered it up.
It was one of four recommendations made by the grand jury in its Aug. 14 report.
It passed the House overwhelmingly last month, but Republican senators had said they considered it unconstitutional and warned that cash awards in such lawsuits carried serious consequences for church charities.
The Catholic Church and for-profit insurers also opposed it.
On Wednesday, Senate Republicans floated a measure to give victims a two-year window to sue still-surviving perpetrators, but not institutions, such as the Catholic Church, while creating a framework for a victims’ compensation fund that carried more modest payouts.
But House Majority Leader Dave Reed told reporters that his chamber would reject the Senate’s plan, and Shapiro said it would shield the Catholic Church from accountability.
Late Wednesday, Shapiro accused Senate Republicans of siding with insurers and the church, and quitting and going home to campaign ahead of the Nov. 6 election.
“They stood with the powerful institutions over the people of Pennsylvania,” Shapiro said in a Capitol news conference backed by adult victims of childhood sexual abuse. “They turned their backs on these victims and the thousands, yes the thousands identified by the grand jury, all across the commonwealth.”
Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, said he pulled a vote on his counterproposal because he knew it would meet House rejection. He has been unfairly criticized by Wolf, Shapiro and House members while proposing changes to help victims that nevertheless crossed powerful lawyers’ groups, Scarnati said.
“They have only thrown arrows at my concessions and it is my hope that we can find a path forward and provide meaningful changes to help victims,” Scarnati said. “Quite frankly, my amendment was a winner for all, except the trial lawyers.”
Current law bars lawsuits when a victim turns 30. Before 2002, state law required victims to sue within two years of being victimized.
The bill’s future remained unclear, with no scheduled voting session until a new Legislature is seated in January.
The nearly 900-page state grand jury report said more than 300 Roman Catholic priests had abused at least 1,000 children over the past seven decades in six Pennsylvania dioceses. It also accused senior church officials of systematically covering up complaints. Most cases were between 1970 and 2000.
The grand jury report has shaken the church, spawned investigations in other states and drawn a strong response from Pope Francis.
The grand jury’s report has propelled a fresh debate over changing the law in Pennsylvania. Legislation has been simmering since 2016, after a prior grand jury report detailed allegations of the abuse of hundreds of children over decades in the Altoona-Johnstown diocese.
Pennsylvania lawmakers have broadly agreed to eliminate time limits in criminal prosecutions of child sexual abuse, which currently go up to a victim’s age of 50. They also have agreed to raise the time limit, from the victim’s age of 30 to 50, for a future victim to sue.
But an entrenched disagreement over giving now-adult victims another chance to sue has held up the package of changes.
Similar windows to sue have been approved over the years in six other states, according to the Philadelphia-based research organization Child USA. Two — Georgia and Utah — limited lawsuits to perpetrators, and lawsuits there have been relatively non-existent compared to Delaware, California, Minnesota and Hawaii, which extended liability to institutions, Child USA said.
Lawsuits and victims’ compensation funds may deliver money to victims who have suffered for years from the memory of their abuse as a child, although there are crucial differences.
Lawyers who help settle child sexual abuse cases say the courts generally promise a bigger payout and the ability for a victim to confront a perpetrator, while dioceses face the possibility that a judge can order them to divulge records of how they handled child sexual abuse complaints.
As much as 40 percent of the settlements or court awards can go to lawyers’ fees, and the church’s defenders say that motivates civil lawyers to press for lawsuits.
A victims’ compensation fund protects diocesan records from court-ordered scrutiny, but delivers a faster payout to victims.