Hope Among Victims of Child Sex Abuse Dashed Amid Senate GOP Proposals
By Ivey DeJesus
October 12, 2018
|President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, is pushing for a Victims Compensation Fund, which, modeled after programs in other dioceses across the country, would financially compensate victims. (PennLive File)|
With time running out on the legislative clock, victims and advocates of child sexual abuse are ramping up efforts to pressure state Senate Republicans to approve a measure that would give adults who were abused as children an opportunity at justice.
A few weeks ago, a tide of optimism buoyed survivors and advocates with expectations that reforms would finally see the light of day. Late this week, those hopes may have been dealt a lethal blow.
Rep. Mark Rozzi, the Berks County Democrat who has emerged as the leader of reform in the Legislature, on Thursday received a copy of the proposals being pushed in the Senate that, for the most part, run counter to the broader reforms being pushed by victims and advocates.
The Senate's most powerful man, President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, is pushing for a Victims Compensation Fund. The fund, modeled after programs in other dioceses across the country, would financially compensate victims.
Scarnati opposes the retroactive window, arguing that it violates the state Constitution.
Scarnati argues the fund would be the most expedient way to compensate victims while avoiding the constitutional issues potentially raised by a retroactive window. In the past few months, several lawsuits have been filed against the church and church officials in Pennsylvania.
Under Scarnati's proposal, a tribunal, managed by judges, would administer the fund. The tribunal would consist of judges, appointed by the Supreme, Commonwealth and Superior Courts and would hire an administrator to report to the tribunal for decisions on how the funds are dispersed. Victims would have one year to file claims with the fund.
Rozzi on Friday expressed frustration at Scarnati's plan to abandon the retroactive component of the bill.
"We need to have the window on this legislation or this legislation doesn't move," Rozzi said during a short press conference at the Capitol.
|Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, has for years called upon the Legislature to enact reforms that would open temporary retroactive civil windows for adult who were abused as children.|
Pennsylvania's Catholic officials have already committed their support to the fund.
With the legislative session winding down ahead of the midterm elections, time is running out.
The Senate convenes again next week for what may be the last chance at voting on a slew of bills, including Senate Bill 261, which would amend the laws and open a two-year temporary retroactive window for civil suits.
The bill was crafted in the Senate last year ahead of the grand jury report, and most recently amended and sanctioned by the House, which added the retroactive component by an overwhelming majority.
Rozzi and scores of other victims meanwhile have launched a last-minute effort to keep the pressure on Senate lawmakers.
"Just because the senators want political cover, they're going to vote on a fund?" Rozzi said. "The state has no business setting up a tribunal...And of course, the bishops don't want the discovery process through civil litigation...How many would be forced to resign?"
From putting their message up on billboards to a protest planned for Monday at the Capitol, they hope to stave off yet another lost opportunity to reform the state child sex crime laws.
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Advocates have been trying for years to reform the laws. In particular, they have aimed to create a temporary time period that would allow victims timed out of the legal system the time to file civil suits against predators. Criminal statutes cannot be revived.
The latest efforts come at the heels of a scathing grand jury report into clergy sex abuse across the Roman Catholic Church in Pennsylvania.
Rozzi has led several rallies at the Capitol, almost all featuring impassioned testimonials from victims.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Josh Shapiro this week continued to urge lawmakers to pass SB 261, which as amended, contains the retroactive window, one of the primary recommendations issued by the grand jury report.
The grand jury report, released in August, found widespread and systemic abuse of children by priests across six dioceses and nearly seven decades. Of the thousands of children who were abused - and are all now adults - almost all have timed out of the legal system. The retroactive window would allow them a short period of time to file civil suits against predators.
|Survivors of child sex abuse say a compensation fund without a retroactive window for civil lawsuits is unacceptable.|
Shapiro on Friday was holding yet another press conference to urge lawmakers to act.
At the same time, victims and advocates continued to roll out more actions on their part.
On Monday, Rozzi will lead another event in which victims and advocates will read the grand jury report aloud in its entirety at the Capitol. In addition, "Sentinels" will stand outside of every Senate office "so the message cannot be mistaken or ignored."
The Survivor's Support Alliance, in the meantime, is installing digital billboards across several counties, including Dauphin and Perry, to urge legislators to support the bill as written.
Victims argue that a compensation fund without a retroactive window component is "inadequate and untenable."
GOP lawmakers are also pushing the idea of a new sexual predator registry that would mirror the Megan's Law registry for certain sex crime convicts.
Even though the statute of limitations, for now, remain expired for most adult victims of child sex abuse, the majority worry that predators remain at large, putting children at risk.
The proposed registry would be run similarly to an investigative agency, which, finding allegations against predators viable, could place that individual on the new public registry. No criminal action could be taken if the statute of limitations have expired.