Senator in eye of the storm over child sexual abuse legislation
By Chip Minemyer
October 07, 2018
A powerful state senator whose re-election supporters include the widow of the late Joe Paterno is a central figure in the debate over giving child sexual abuse victims an opportunity to file lawsuits years later.
Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Bellefonte, faces a defining moment as his side of the General Assembly wrestles with a bill that – as currently written – would open a two-year window of opportunity for adults who allegedly were sexually assaulted as children.
Victims have until age 30 to file civil charges, in accordance with the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse.
The state House passed a measure that would create a two-year window for the filing of lawsuits in cases that have passed that statute of limitations. The legislation is now in the Senate, where members have raised objections.
The attempt to open a window for civil action was inspired by the recent grand jury report that chronicled abuse by more than 300 clergy members involving more than 1,000 victims across the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania. The abuse dates back decades, meaning most of those victims would be older than 30.
Corman has faced this issue before. His district includes Penn State University and the region known as “Happy Valley.”
Paterno was fired as Penn State’s football coach in 2011, as the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal hit.
The NCAA leveled heavy penalties on Penn State and its football program in 2012.
Corman’s campaign released a commercial on Sept. 18 – just before the statute of limitations issue was taken up by the legislature – that features Sue Paterno applauding Corman for challenging the NCAA and getting her husband’s victories restored.
That might suggest that the plight of abused children is not foremost on Corman’s mind as he considers a vote by the Senate, where he holds significant influence.
But Jennifer Kocher, Corman’s communications director, said the senator is “going through a deliberate process” in considering how to respond.
Kocher said the Senate will take action, likely during the week of Oct. 15, and that Corman has heard the pleas of victim advocates urging the senators to approve the two-year window for justice.
“He’s listening to every one of them,” Kocher said.
Two Cambria County state House members who met with The Tribune-Democrat recently called on the Senate to follow their lead. The House voted overwhelmingly to pass the window for lawsuits.
“I don’t know how you can hide from it now,” Rep. Frank Burns, D-East Taylor Township, said. “This has ravaged every community in every part of Pennsylvania. And if we don’t take corrective steps in this, if we don’t do something to protect the victims of the future, we’ve failed as leaders.”
Burns added: “I just feel we have a moral obligation to these victims who were denied justice.”
Rep. Bryan Barbin,
D-Johnstown, said lawmakers are responding now because victims had no outlet when they were abused as children or teens.
“An 18-year-old is not ready to file a lawsuit,” Barbin said.
“They don’t even know what that means.”
Kocher said the senators have two concerns about the House “window” plan:
• Would such a law pass the constitutionality test? (Supporters of the plan say pass it and we’ll find out.)
• The bill that passed the House includes language that allows those suing government-related entities such as schools to sue for higher amounts than those suing state agencies such as the Department of Corrections.
Kocher said: “The House created two classes of victim.”
Barbin called the Senate’s emphasis on this point “a red herring” – a diversion, since the different levels of “immunity” have always been part of the process and would not apply to the church cases anyway.
Corman, Barbin and Burns all face opponents in the Nov. 6 elections: For Barbin, Republican Jim Rigby; for Burns, Republican Jerry Carnicella; for Corman, Democrat Ezra Nanes.
Organizations lobbying the Senate to not adopt the window, Barbin said, include the Catholic Church and the Insurance Federation – both of which could lose money if lawsuits are brought forward.
“There are a lot of different people who don’t want this process applying to them,” he said.
Barbin sees three options for the Senate concerning the “window” bill:
• Not take up the issue at all until next year, despite pressure across the state to do something.
• Eliminate the window for abuse claims.
• Modify the window, perhaps reducing it from two years to 12 months.
Barbin expects the Senate to revise the bill and send it back to the House, saying: “ ‘If you want to help these people, here’s what you get.’ That’s how the Senate operates.”
And will Corman – with Sue Paterno as his champion – support a bill that allows even a modified window for child sexual abuse victims to seek civil justice against their abusers and organizations that allowed the abuse to occur?
Kocher said “justice” is what the senator is seeking.
“He’s a caring guy who wears his emotions on his sleeve,” she said. “But he feels an obligation to think long term and not just vote with his emotions.”
Soon enough, we’ll know what that means.