Senate balking at lawsuit window

The Herald [Sharon PA]

May 23, 2021

By John Finnerty

Abuse survivors to hold rally today in Harrisburg

Adult survivors of child sex abuse are pledging to return to the state Capitol today and maintain pressure on Senate Republican leaders, who so far have declined to hold a final vote on legislation that would permit lawsuits against their abusers and organizations like the Catholic Church that covered up for child predators.

Senate leaders don’t have a vote on the legislation, House 951, scheduled next week, said Erica Wright, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland County.

Declining to act now would be “cruel and inhumane” after the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the legislation in April in a vote in which key Republicans — Senate President Pro Tem Jake Corman, R-Centre County and Senate Judiciary committee Chairwoman Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne County threw their support behind the bill, said Shaun Dougherty, a priest abuse survivor from Johnstown.

“They pulled this out of Judiciary, they have to see it the rest of the way through. Otherwise, it was cruel and inhumane to vote that out of judiciary if it was never going to come to the floor” for a vote by the full Senate, Dougherty said.

Survivors of abuse are committed to continuing to lobby for the reforms even while acknowledging the emotional toll that the continued failure to get legislation passed is having. A rally at the Capitol earlier in May to press for HB 951 attracted about two dozen people.

“If it was a rally to protect greyhounds, the steps of the Capitol would be packed. This doesn’t get the same response. I’ll never understand it,” said Michael McDonnell, a spokesman for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

“People are tiring,” he said, adding that the Constitutional amendment process looms in the distance, which may be diminishing some of the pressure for immediate action.

“Some survivors are just so exhausted and they are comfortable with knowing that the constitutional amendment process has begun again. Are they waiting for 2023?” he said.

Dougherty said a group of survivors of child abuse will hold a rally outside the Capitol Monday just before the Senate is scheduled to open its session at 1 p.m. Dougherty said that while most of the attention on the issue has been focused on survivors of priest abuse, that there are survivors of abuse committed by a wide range of people.

“In the five years since I’ve been public. I’ve met victims of doctors, ministers, relatives, coaches, teachers, principals, this is nowhere near just a Catholic problem,” he said. But Dougherty added that lobbyists representing the Catholic Church have been the legislation’s most forceful opponents.

Survivors of abuse have been calling for the General Assembly to open a window for lawsuits for years. But the pressure to act intensified after grand jury investigations — first in Altoona and Johnstown in 2016 and then statewide in 2018 — that revealed the Catholic Church had covered up abuse by hundreds of priests and lay people over decades.

Even so, efforts to pass the legislation have repeatedly gotten bogged down in the state Senate.

Both chambers of the General Assembly had passed legislation that would have asked voters in last Tuesday’s primary whether to change the Constitution to open the window for lawsuits by survivors of abuse. But the Department of State announced that because the question hadn’t been properly advertised, it couldn’t be on the ballot.

Lawmakers have begun the process for getting the question on the ballot in 2023, but adult survivors of abuse have been seeking to get lawmakers to immediately change the law through a normal piece of legislation rather than through the constitutional amendment process — which requires votes in two separate legislative sessions.

McDonnell said Senate Republicans are wasting time when they could pass House Bill 951, which passed the state House by a vote of 149-52 in March. It then passed the Senate judiciary committee in April by a vote of 11-3.

“What are they working on? What needs to be refined? Why can’t we just put it to the floor for a vote,” McDonnell said. “As is, HB 951 is a sound bill,” he said.

Wright said that Senate Republicans are trying to come to grips with whether the window for lawsuits can be opened through a normal piece of legislation without amending the Constitution. There are also concerns that making a retroactive change on behalf of abuse victims would create a precedent that would allow for similar retroactive changes on other issues, she said.

“This is an important and delicate matter that is being reviewed. I think it is fair to say the victims and elected officials have a common goal. I also understand and acknowledge the victims are frustrated with the timeline,” she said. “It has been suggested that we are stalling HB 951. We are not,” she said.

Wright said that the Senate Republicans asked the attorney general for case law and legal guidance that would support the idea that opening a retroactive window for lawsuits would be legal.