Feds Open Church Probe As Fight over Lawsuit Window Remains Unresolved
By John Finnerty
October 19, 2018
Advocates aren’t giving up on the crusade to get the state to open a window to let adults who’d been molested as children sue beyond the normal statute of limitations, even though the state Senate failed to pass legislation to allow that to happen before ending its session on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the findings of a statewide grand jury into sexual abuse by clergy and church leaders' conduct are now being investigated by the U.S Department of Justice.
As the Associated Press first reported Thursday, the Justice Department has opened an investigation of child sexual abuse inside the Roman Catholic Church in Pennsylvania, using subpoenas to demand confidential files and testimony from church leaders.
The subpoenas, served last week, follow a scathing state grand jury report over the summer that found that 301 "predator priests" in Pennsylvania had molested more than 1,000 children over several decades and that church leaders had covered up for the offenders.
"The Roman Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg will cooperate fully with this inquiry, just as it has with the Office of Attorney General’s investigation," a statement from Rachel Bryson, executive director of public relations for the diocese, said. "The Diocese has worked to be open and transparent regarding the issue of child sexual abuse and its past."
U.S. Attorney William McSwain of Philadelphia, who issued the subpoenas, wants to know if priests, bishops, seminarians or others committed any federal crimes.
He demanded the bishops turn over any evidence that anyone in their ranks took children across state lines for illicit purposes; sent sexual images or messages via phone or computer; instructed anyone not to contact police; reassigned suspected predators; or used money or other assets as part of the scandal.
The state grand jury had examined the church’s handling of predator priest in six dioceses – Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton – and followed similar earlier investigations targeting the dioceses of Altoona-Johnstown and Philadelphia.
The grand jury had called on the Legislature to enact four reforms, most notably and controversially, the two-year window to allow for lawsuits in cases in which the statute of limitations had otherwise expired. The state House in September amended legislation originally authored by Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati to add a two-year window. Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, and other Senate Republicans have opposed the window concept and Wednesday, the final day of the fall legislative session, came and went without the Senate taking a vote on the issue.
Late Wednesday, Scarnati said he remains open to negotiating on the issue.
House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana County, told reporters that House members will only support legislation that calls for a “clear window” allowing lawsuits targeting perpetrators and any institutions, like the church, that covered up for the predators.
Senate Republican leaders said they’d tried to offer compromises but found supporters of the civil window concept unwilling to negotiate.
State Rep. Patrick Browne, R-Lehigh County, the Senate appropriations committee chairman, said that he worries that if the state opens a window for lawsuits it won’t just harm the church, it will harm the people who rely on its social services and schools.
“A process of healing, a true process of healing, doesn’t include causing unusual pain to others,” Browne said. “That was one of our major concerns with a window.”
Scarnati said those interested in getting legislation passed should “stop hurtling harsh unconstructive words and offer alternatives.”
Speaking to supporters late Wednesday night, state Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks County, said that the fight will continue to get a two-year window, like one proposed in an amendment he authored to a Senate bill.
“How can we stand by and do nothing? We will be back. We will stay united and we will get this passed. Not today, but it’s coming soon,” Rozzi said.