Pennsylvania lobbyists are obstacle to changing sex abuse laws
By Bill White
March 19, 2016
|Constitutional scholar Marci Hamilton, a professor at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University, in New York City, speaks in the state Capitol Rotunda during Monday's rally for reforming child sex-abuse statutes of limitations. With her are state Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, and Attorney General Kathleen Kane (left).|
I was in Harrisburg on Monday, and The Morning Call's Capitol correspondent, Steve Esack, helped me with some research while I attended a rally for child sex abuse statute-of-limitations reform and waited for a medical marijuana bill to finally hit the state House floor.
Here's what he came up with: The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, the umbrella group for every diocese and archdiocese in the state, spent $3.5 million on lobbying in Harrisburg between 2010 and 2015, according to Department of State records.
That breaks down to an annual average of $58,890. It includes payments to three of the state's leading lobbying firms, which in turn send individual lobbyists to advocate before lawmakers and state officials the Catholic position on 32 topics, including "children's issues," "liability reform" and "prevention of child abuse."
The expense reports list three types of expenses, direct and indirect communication and "gifts, hospitality, transportation and lodging for state officials or employees or their immediate families."
The Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania, one of several insurance industry lobbying organizations operating here, spent about $10.3 million on lobbying between 2015 and 2010, which comes to an annual average of about $1.7 million. The federation's lobbying disclosure forms do not break out topics lobbyists discussed with lawmakers and other state officials, but it's safe to say that this much spending gives the insurance industry a lot of clout.
If you're wondering why efforts to reform our child sex abuse statute-of-limitations laws can't even emerge from committee, let alone be approved, those numbers are worth considering. Powerful lobbyists call the tune in all kinds of decisions in Harrisburg, and the Catholic Conference and the Insurance Federation are the two most often mentioned when advocates for changing these laws express their frustration, as they did again at Monday's rally. Both organizations have publicly opposed any such changes.
Under our present laws, civil action can be pursued only until the child sex abuse victim reaches 30, which is much too young when you consider that it takes decades for many of these victims to finally give voice to their secrets. Criminal charges can be brought until the victims reach 50.
Separate bills in the state House would eliminate all statutes of limitations for future criminal and civil cases and would open a two-year window in which anyone, including people otherwise blocked by our statute-of-limitations laws, could pursue a civil remedy and finally identify the hidden predators, perhaps preventing new crimes. These suits, if successful, shift the cost of the victims' treatment for lingering emotional and health problems to those responsible.
Some of the people who understand how important this is made their case again at Monday's rally, which included legislators, victims, state officials and other advocates.
The hope is that the momentum created by the movie "Spotlight" and the grand jury report from the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, on top of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, earlier grand jury reports from Philadelphia and even the Bill Cosby case, will tip the balance toward the victims instead of the lobbyists.
I've made most of the same arguments they made in past columns, so I'll focus this time on some of the comments from Marci Hamilton, an expert on constitutional law and a powerful advocate for extending or eliminating statutes of limitations in these cases.
She effectively addressed several of the most frequent arguments against the two-year window, including these:
• "The state Task Force on Child Protection didn't include statutes-of-limitations changes among its recommendations." Hamilton said that's because then-Gov. Tom Corbett refused to let the task force consider that subject, not because it was considered and rejected.
• "It would be struck down in court." She says it clearly is constitutional to make retroactive changes in civil statute-of-limitations laws, which has been demonstrated many times in court decisions.
As I pointed out on my blog last week, state House Judiciary Committee Chairman Ron Marsico, R-Dauphin, tossed the statute-of-limitations advocates a bone recently by announcing his support for eliminating the statute for criminal cases only.
At first glance, this might seem like great progress, considering that Marsico has served as a legislative black hole for years' worth of statute-of-limitations legislation. But extending the criminal statute will have no actual impact until 2048, because it can apply only to victims who turn 18 after the date it passes, and they already would have until age 50. Not exactly a powerful blow for justice.
What's more, Marsico and those who support only extending the criminal statute in effect will be saying that extending the statute of limitations is unfair for civil cases because memories fade and witnesses die — but that's not a problem for criminal cases, where the church and the insurance industry aren't at financial risk.