2-year Window for Clergy Abuse Lawsuits Sent to State Senate
By Mark Scolforo
September 25, 2018
The state House overwhelmingly passed a proposal Tuesday to give victims of child sexual abuse in Pennsylvania an opportunity to file lawsuits over claims that would otherwise be too outdated to pursue, but a key Senate leader said the current draft had "glaring problems" that required more work.
The House voted 173-21 without debate to send the Senate a bill creating a two-year window for litigation, a way for older victims to pursue lawsuits that fall outside the state's statute of limitations.
Establishing such a window was among the recommendations in a state grand jury report last month that found hundreds of Roman Catholic priests abused children in the state going back to the 1940s, and that church officials covered it up.
After a closed-door meeting among Senate Republicans to discuss the bill, majority leaders emerged to say they planned to make additional changes, mentioning grand jury recommendations to stop nondisclosure agreements in civil settlements from prohibiting contact with police and changes to rules for reporting suspected child abuse.
Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said his members are also concerned that the amended bill treats victims of governmental entities, such as schools, differently than victims of private entities, such as churches. There's a heavier burden of proof and a cap on damages in suits against governmental victims.
"We don't think public employees should have a shield that private do not," Corman said.
Asked about the two-year window, he said: "We haven't decided no or yes on that."
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf said he supports the House's bill and urged the Senate to act.
"If we cannot defend victims of these horrific acts, we may very well lose the trust of those we represent, of those most in need of defense, of protection, of support," Wolf said.
The bill in its current form would give victims until age 50 to file lawsuits (currently limited to until age 30) and eliminate the statute of limitations entirely for criminal prosecutions.
After the House vote, state Rep. Mark Rozzi told fellow members to "go home and be proud and let people know you stood with victims."
Rozzi, a Berks County Democrat who was abused as a teenager by a now-deceased priest, referred to a heavily traveled bridge in Harrisburg to make a point about what might happen to the bill in the Senate. It was Rozzi's amendment containing the two-year window that was approved by the House on Monday.
"This is a great day for Pennsylvania, a good start," he said on the floor Tuesday. "I know some of you have concerns about maybe what the Senate will do. But if the Senate decides to jump off the Harvey Taylor Bridge, that's their decision."
The bill was approved unanimously by the Senate early last year to give victims until age 50 to sue and eliminate the statute of limitations for related criminal offenses, but that proposal did not include retroactivity for civil suits.
"The House had this bill for 20 months — we will respond in days," Corman said. "And we are committed to make sure that we get a bill back to the House in time for them to concur." After this week, both chambers will be in session for several more days in October.
Pennsylvania's eight Roman Catholic dioceses said late last week they were willing to set up a victims' compensation fund, but provided no details about funding or how it might work.