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Church abuse bill in limbo on lawmakers’ final voting day

Marc Levy
The Associated Press

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Pennsylvania’s Legislature plowed through its final scheduled voting day of 2018 on Wednesday with no resolution to legislation responding to a state grand jury report accusing hundreds of Roman Catholic priests of sexually abusing children over decades.

Legislation is in the Senate, where the Republican majority has thus far opposed 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 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.

Republican senators met behind closed doors Wednesday before emerging, saying they were discussing a measure that would give victims a two-year window to sue still-surviving perpetrators but not institutions, such as the Catholic Church.

Shapiro said that plan was unacceptable and would excuse the Catholic Church from being held accountable.

After a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman early Wednesday afternoon in the Capitol, Shapiro said he tried to persuade Corman that “there needs to be a window, and that that window needs to apply to everybody, and that it can’t exempt the Catholic Church, the very institution that enabled this abuse.”

Current law bars lawsuits when a victim turns 30. Before 2002, state law required victims to sue within two years of being victimized.

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.

Report aftermath: The grand jury report has shaken the church, spawned investigations in other states and drawn a strong response from Pope Francis.

In Jefferson County, the home of Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, a former priest in the Erie Diocese admitted in court Wednesday he sexually abused children and pleaded guilty to corruption of minors and child endangerment. The Rev. David Lee Poulson is one of two Catholic priests to be charged as a result of the grand jury investigation.

Scarnati had backed a statewide church-created fund to compensate victims and maintained that retroactively restoring the rights of someone to sue is unconstitutional.

The Catholic Church and Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania, which represents for-profit insurers, also have opposed the restoration of a victim’s right to sue for damages.

Individual dioceses already have set up victim compensation funds, said Sen. Don White, R-Indiana.

Shapiro said a church-created fund would let the Catholic Church define how much money it is willing pay and “is a slap in the face to the victims.”

“It allows them to continue the cover-up, to continue to silence the victims, and it gives the appearance that they’re trying to do something when in fact they’re not,” Shapiro said.

Fresh debate: 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 passage of a package of changes to the law.

Similar windows have been approved over the years in several other states.

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.