Fight over sexual abuse victims’ lawsuits returns to Senate
HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s battle over giving now-adult victims of child sexual abuse another chance to sue their perpetrators or institutions that may have covered it up returned to the Senate on Wednesday, as competing bills landed in the chamber.
The movement comes six months after wider legislation to lift criminal and civil limitations on child sexual abuse cases collapsed in the Senate in the wake of a fresh Roman Catholic Church scandal that spurred victims to lobby in the Capitol’s corridors.
On Wednesday, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed legislation to relax criminal and civil limitations and to amend the state constitution to create a two-year window for victims to file civil lawsuits if they’d lost that right because they passed Pennsylvania’s legal age limit.
Hours before, Senate Democrats, backed by Attorney General Josh Shapiro and victim advocates, announced new legislation in the Republican-controlled chamber to eliminate criminal and civil limitations and to change state law to create a two-year window.
Both would undo civil liability protections granted to governmental institutions, such as public schools.
Grand jury report: A two-year window is one of four provisions recommended by Pennsylvania’s landmark grand jury report in August on child sexual abuse in six of the state’s eight Catholic dioceses. Several other states have adopted something similar previously, and lawmakers in New York and New Jersey have approved windows in recent months.
Legislation giving now-adult victims a second chance to sue had already passed Pennsylvania’s House twice in the past three years, both times after Roman Catholic Church scandals.
However, it has been blocked by a critical mass of the Senate’s Republican majority, most recently in October. It is opposed by Catholic bishops, who call it unconstitutional, and for-profit insurers, who say they are concerned about being forced to pay out for liabilities for which premiums were never collected.
The years-long fight has held up passage of the wider legislation, and a chief advocate, Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks County, said it is time to get something done.
“It’s what our citizens demand and it’s what victims need, past, present and future,” Rozzi said during his floor speech, which garnered a standing ovation.
Process: The process of amending the constitution could take several years because it requires passage by both chambers in two consecutive two-year legislative sessions and then affirmation in a statewide voter referendum.
But it could take just as long to change the law and then wait out court challenges by the church, said Rozzi, who has told of his rape as a 13-year-old boy by a Catholic priest.
The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, which speaks for the state’s bishops, is monitoring the House legislation and does not oppose it, a spokesman said. The conference, meanwhile, points to compensation funds begun in recent months by some dioceses as able to provide more immediate help to more victims.
It remained unclear Wednesday whether any sort of two-year window — constitutional or statutory — can pass the Senate.
Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati has led opposition to a two-year window, calling it unconstitutional and a financial threat to dioceses simply to benefit trial lawyers.
“As long as everybody’s reasonable, we can get something done and what I see from the House is reasonable, for the most part,” Scarnati said Wednesday.
Shapiro, whose office produced the grand jury report, maintains that a two-year window is constitutional and Sen. Tim Kearney, D-Delaware County, said he believes the Senate Democrats’ legislation is the fastest and best way forward for victims.
Carolyn Fortney, a childhood victim of sexual abuse by her parish priest whose case was described in the grand jury report, pointed to action on a window by lawmakers in New York and New Jersey.
“I believe the difference with New York and New Jersey is that they allowed their conscience to guide them and chose to do the right thing, which they will be remembered for by so many for so long,” Fortney said.