Fight brewing over child sex abuse reform in Harrisburg
A fight is developing in the General Assembly over whether people who say they were sexually abused by Catholic clergy decades ago should get a new chance to sue the church.
This week’s release of a grand jury report that said 300 members of the clergy abused more than 1,000 children in six Pennsylvania dioceses while the church covered up the claims raises the stakes for pending legislation in Harrisburg to help victims of such abuse.
At issue is whether lawmakers should temporarily allow people older than 30 to file civil lawsuits over sexual abuse that occurred when they were younger than 18. Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations prohibits childhood civil abuse claims after 30 and criminal claims after 50.
State Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks County, has led efforts to create a two-year window during which victims would be able to file lawsuits over childhood abuse regardless of their age.
“They want to feel vindicated; they want to expose their perpetrator,” said Rozzi, who was sexually abused by a Catholic priest as a child.
The proposal, which the grand jury recommended in its report, is modeled after similar ones that passed in at least four other states. The House has voted in favor of the so-called “window of opportunity” measure before, but it was shot down in the state Senate. A current Senate proposal that sits in the House includes a number of reforms to combat child sex abuse but not a “window of opportunity” measure.
Senate Republicans say they are concerned about the constitutionality of such a measure, citing legal advice from former Attorney General Bruce Castor and former federal prosecutor Bruce Antkowiak, who have testified that the proposal wouldn’t withstand a legal challenge.
Supporters of the measure dispute that, pointing to other states’ success in implementing windows of opportunity.
The bill in the House, known as Senate Bill 261, would enable new victims to file childhood abuse claims until they are 50 instead of 30. It would make it easier for litigants to prevail in conspiracy and solicitation cases related to child sex crimes and for victims to sue institutions such as schools and governments over abuse claims. The Senate unanimously passed the bill in February 2017.
“Senate Bill 261 is a constitutionally sound bill that takes a crucial step forward to help protect victims of child sexual abuse,” said state Sen. Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County.
Rozzi said he plans to introduce an amendment to include the two-year-window measure in Senate Bill 261 when the Legislature reconvenes in September. If an amended bill clears the House, the Senate could vote it up or down or hold a conference to try to hash out differences with the House. The House has 11 scheduled voting days and the Senate has 10 before the 2017-18 session ends in November.
In addition to the two-year-window proposal, the grand jury recommends strengthening requirements to report abuse and specifying that confidentiality agreements victims have signed with the church don’t cover communications with law enforcement.
‘Just roll the dice’
No Republican state senators representing communities in the Pittsburgh and Greensburg dioceses region said they would support the two-year-window proposal.
State Sen. Pat Stefano, R-Connellsville, said he supports Senate Bill 261 as “the only constitutional way to achieve the grand jury’s recommendation with regards to statute of limitations,” adding “we cannot allow the loopholes and tools used to cover up abuse to remain intact.”
State Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Canonsburg, said she supports Senate Bill 261 but did not respond to a follow-up question about the two-year window.
Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, said in a statement that “it’s incumbent upon the Legislature to carefully consider the recommendations by the grand jury and slam the door shut on future atrocities.”
Sen. Don White, R-Indiana, said the House should pass Senate Bill 261, which he called “constitutionally sound.”
Democratic state Sens. Wayne Fontana of Brookline, Jay Costa of Forest Hills and Jim Brewster of McKeesport said they support fully implementing the grand jury’s recommendations, including the two-year-window proposal.
“I think that report has really moved me to a position that I believe that the individuals who have been victimized should have an opportunity to present their claims to the appropriate authorities, be it the courts or whoever,” Costa said.
“If somebody wants to challenge it, let them do that,” Fontana said. “To me, (the church) should just live up to their moral and financial obligations and move forward.”
Brewster said he thought lawmakers should “just roll the dice and say we’re going to adhere to the recommendations, we’re going to make this law, and if people want to challenge it then they have the right to do that. I think the correct course now is to open up all avenues for the victims.”
Republican state Sens. Elder Vogel of New Sewickley, Guy Reschenthaler of Jefferson Hills and Randy Vulakovich of Shaler did not respond to requests for comment. Another Republican, Scott Hutchinson of Oil City, could not be reached.
‘Nothing but politics’
For Rozzi, no measure goes far enough if it doesn’t give people who were victimized as children a chance to hold the church accountable. And he doesn’t think the church, which has announced reforms aimed at curbing abuses, will make serious enough reforms without having to face legal and financial consequences.
“To me, compromise means we’re putting children on the chopping block for future abuse. I’m not going to do that,” he said.
The Catholic Conference, which lobbies for the church, has criticized the grand jury report and opposed legislative changes. It spent nearly $1.7 million lobbying Harrisburg officials since January 2016, including $485,964 between Jan. 1 and June 30 of this year as the grand jury was wrapping up its work.
The group says it lobbies on about 20 issues, including child sexual abuse.
The Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania also has opposed changes and lobbied the Legislature.
State lobbying records don’t show what specific issues lobbyists spend money on.
Antkowiak, the former federal prosecutor, said lawmakers could eliminate the statute of limitations, but they’d have to clear additional hurdles to create a window of opportunity for those timed out under prior laws.
“To make retroactivity constitutional, you would have to first amend the Pennsylvania Constitution,” Antkowiak said.
Other attorneys specializing in childhood sexual abuse disagree.
Marci Hamilton, an attorney who is the CEO of CHILD USA, a think tank dedicated to child abuse and neglect, said Pennsylvania’s constitution is not different enough from those of other states that have created windows of opportunity to pose serious concerns. The other states include California, Minnesota, Massachusetts and Connecticut.
“The constitutional arguments are being raised as a smokescreen. They’re not real; they’re nothing but politics,” Hamilton said.
Jeff Anderson, a Minnesota attorney who has represented hundreds of people in child sex abuse cases against the Catholic Church there, said courts have repeatedly found that state legislatures may make changes to procedural legal rules, such as when and how claims may be filed.
“Even if there is a constitutional question, let’s decide who are we going to protect first? Are we going to protect the predators or are we going to protect the kids? Let’s err on the side of protecting the kids,” Anderson said.
Anderson said he represented 450 survivors in a suit against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis that settled for $210 million. That lawsuit emerged from a three-year window of opportunity the state created, he said.