Scarnati: Most GOP senators see problems with bill to help clergy abuse victims

By Liz Navratil
Post Gazette
October 16, 2018

The top Republican in the state Senate said Tuesday that the majority of GOP senators in the chamber agree with him that a pending bill designed to help older victims of child sexual abuse has serious problems and needs fixing.

But Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, also said he has not formally polled his membership to see where they stand on allowing a temporary suspension in the civil statute of limitations so that victims older than 30 can sue their tormentors for decades-old abuse.

The latter is at the heart of a fierce and emotional tug-of-war in the Legislature, and Mr. Scarnati has been among the most vocal opponents of the so-called lawsuit "window", which he believes is unconstitutional.

"What I can tell you is that there is a majority of members that feel the same way that I feel," Mr. Scarnati told reporters, speaking of the bill the House passed last week. "I believe we probably have 28 to 30 members that feel that way. My job is to lead a caucus and look for their guidance, and that's what I'm doing."

Earlier this week, Mr. Scarnati would not say whether he personally would block a floor vote on a lawsuit window if his members signaled that they wanted to vote for one. The House bill contains such a provision and is supported by Gov. Tom Wolf, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, whose office led the grand jury investigation that wrote a scathing report on Catholic clergy sex abuse in the state; a bipartisan majority of House members; as well as victims and their advocates.

In recent weeks, several moderate GOP senators from the Philadelphia suburbs — many of them in tough reelection battles — have indicated they would vote for the provision if it came to a floor vote.

Mr. Scarnati said Tuesday morning that he had not polled his members on the window "because we are working on something that is a compromise." He would not give details. He has been public about his support for victims compensation funds as an alternative to lawsuits.

Such funds have been set up by Catholic dioceses in New York so that victims of clergy abuse can be compensated if they are too old under that state's statute of limitations to bring civil claims.

Mr. Scarnati's office late last week circulated a proposal calling for creation of a "tribunal" of judges appointed by the state's appellate courts that would, in turn, select an administrator to manage a victims compensation fund. Mr. Scarnati's proposal also would create a public registry that would allow victims to petition courts to add an abuser's name.

Victims and their advocates quickly opposed that idea, many of them characterizing it as a bailout for the Catholic Church and the insurance industry. Both have argued that it could lead to devastating financial blows.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Mr. Scarnati said the abuse victims he has spoken with aren't "the victims in this building" — an apparent reference to activist victims and their advocates who have flocked to the Capitol in recent weeks to push for a two-year window of opportunity to sue.

"These are the victims back home," Mr. Scarnati said. "These are the victims that don't want to be victimized. They don't want to have to wait to go through this again, through cross-examination, discovery and certainly a long legal process. This is setting people up for something that is totally not in their expectations. So expectations need to be met here."



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