Erie’s Laughlin wants compromise in abuse law
By Ed Palattella
October 13, 2018
State senator wants legislation over grand jury report to include both a church-created compensation fund and a two-year window for victims to sue.
State Sen. Dan Laughlin is proposing a compromise over what is expected to be the main topic of debate when the Senate reconvenes in Harrisburg on Monday: legislation to create a two-year window for child sexual abuse victims to sue, no matter what the statute of limitations.
Laughlin, of Millcreek Township, R-49th Dist., said he supports the creation of the window, which is one of the four recommendations included in the Aug. 14 grand jury report on child sexual abuse in six Roman Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania, including the Catholic Diocese of Erie.
But Laughlin said he also supports the creation of a church-controlled victims’ compensation fund, which church leaders are backing rather than the two-year window.
“What I have proposed provides both options for the victims,” Laughlin said in an interview on Friday.
He also outlined the proposal in an op-ed piece that the Erie Times-News is publishing on Monday.
In proposing what he describes as “a two-pronged approach,” Laughlin is pushing for legislation that runs counter, to a degree, to the wishes of the president pro tempore of the Senate, Joe Scarnati, a Republican from Jefferson County, who controls what bills get to the Senate floor.
Scarnati has proposed the fund rather than supporting the two-year window. The fund has gained the backing of the bishops of the six dioceses in the grand jury report, including Erie Catholic Bishop Lawrence Persico.
Scarnati and the bishops are arguing that the window’s retroactivity would run into constitutional challenges that could delay access to the courts for victims. Those who favor the window said it would provide victims an opportunity to have their case heard in open court, and that amount of damages victims’ seek would not be limited, as they would be under the church fund.
“A two-pronged approach,” Laughlin wrote in the op-ed, “would give victims the opportunity to have their day in court or they could receive the compensation they deserve in a timely manner without waiting for the resolution of the expected court battle over the constitutionality of breaking the statute of limitations.”
“I believe all victims should be compensated properly and be given a way to have some sense of closure to the suffering they’ve endured,” he wrote.
Laughlin also said he is concerned that a massive court judgment against a diocese in one case would eliminate the possibility that other victims could get compensation by suing. He said the compensation fund would provide more of a guarantee of some kind of payment to victims who choose to use the fund rather than go to court. And Laughlin said a compensation fund could be a better option for victims whose lawsuits might not be as strong as other victims’.
“In the interest of all the victims, including those who might not have been harmed as badly, the victims’ fund allows them more easily to move on,” Laughlin said.
Laughlin said he had spoken to Scarnati about the proposal with the two options. Scarnati’s office had no immediate comment on Friday.
The Erie area’s other state senator, Michelle Brooks, a Republican from Mercer County, has said she is reviewing the proposed legislation. Brooks represents the 50th District, which includes southern Erie County.
In response to Laughlin’s proposal, Persico on Friday referred to previous comments he and other bishops made in supporting the compensation fund as a way for victims to get a resolution to their claims and “allow them to avoid difficult and prolonged litigation.” The bishops also expressed concerns that suits filed under a two-year window could lead to large awards that could bankrupt their dioceses.
Laughlin’s proposal won a quick ally in state Rep. Mark Rozzi, a Berks County Democrat who has advocated for the two-year window, known as the Rozzi amendment. In an interview on Friday, Rozzi said he “absolutely” supports Laughlin’s approach because it preserves the two-year window for those who want to choose that route.
“I love his idea,” said Rozzi, who spoke to Laughlin by phone on Friday. “The hybrid idea is one of the best ideas I have heard so far, to have the window and the fund. I think his idea is something we could come to an agreement on.”
“I appreciate Dan’s proposal,” Rozzi also said. “We need a hero in the Senate. Who is going to be a hero in the Senate and fight for this?”
Rozzi was critical of Scarnati’s latest proposal, which surfaced late this week. Scarnati’s staff was circulating a plan that would require the appointment of a tribunal of judges to oversee the church compensation fund, which would still be the only option for victims.
“It is complete garbage,” Rozzi said.
The state House on Sept. 24 passed Rozzi’s window amendment by a 173-21 vote and sent the full abuse-related legislation, Senate Bill 261, back to the Senate for consideration. All the members of the Erie-area House delegation voted for the amendment, which also has a vocal supporter in Attorney General Josh Shapiro, whose office handled the grand jury investigation.
Rozzi testified before the grand jury that a Catholic priest sexually abused him in the 1980s, when Rozzi was 13.
He said he also likes Laughlin’s proposal because a church-created fund would only provide recourse to victims of church-related abuse. The two-year window, Rozzi said, would be available to anyone who suffered child abuse at the hands of someone connected to a private or public institution, such as a public school.
Laughlin raised concerns that the current legislation treats the church differently than government institutions that would be subject to abuse lawsuits. The proposed legislation bans the use of governmental immunity to shield lawsuits against public institutions, but Laughlin said the proposal needs to go farther in stripping public institutions of other protections.
Rozzi said he has no problem with addressing Laughlin’s concerns.
When Laughlin and the other 49 state senators return on Monday, they will have three consecutive days, through Wednesday, to consider the window legislation before they are scheduled to adjourn for the year.
Laughlin said he wants the Senate to deal with the legislation this coming week. He also said he supports the three other recommendations in the grand jury report. Those recommendations have generated widespread support, including from the church.
They are eliminating the criminal statute of limitations for child sexual abuse cases going forward; clarifying penalties for failure to report suspected abuse; and eliminating confidentiality agreements in cases of child sexual abuse.