New plan would bar clergy sex abuse victims from suing Catholic Church, critics say
By Ivey Dejesus
October 17, 2018
On the last session day of the year for the Pennsylvania Senate, lawmakers are clashing over revisions to a bill to reform child sex crime laws that would protect the Catholic Church from lawsuits.
Some advocates have urged lawmakers to approve a window to allow clergy sex abuse victims to file civil suits, even if the abuse occurred decades ago and is beyond the statutes of limitation. But critics say a new proposal would bar victims from using that window to sue institutions, including the Catholic Church.
Lawmakers continue to negotiate behind closed doors late Wednesday night. The measure has angered victim advocates and the dissatisfaction goes beyond party lines. House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana, said his chamber wouldn't accept a proposal shielding institutions from lawsuits.
The Catholic Church figures large in the discussion over the bill. A reincarnation of previous attempts, the bill comes at the heels of a blistering grand jury report that found thousands of children had been sexually molested and raped by Catholic priests across the state.
Catholic Church should not be exempt
Lobbyists from the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania have aggressively opposed the retroactive component to the bill.
On Wednesday afternoon, reports circulating in the Capitol signaled that Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati supported a measure that would protect institutions from civil lawsuits filed under a retroactive window. The amended bill, Senate Bill 261, would ostensibly allow victims to file suits against individual predators.
That would mean that thousands of Pennsylvania residents who were sexually abused as children by priests would have little legal recourse for justice. The vast majority of priests identified as predators by the latest grand jury report as previous statewide investigations are dead.
For critics, the "window" essentially would become a wall preventing victims from going to court, if the proposal is adopted.
"This is completely unacceptable," Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, who has spearheaded the retroactive legislation said in a written statement.
"A window that does not include institutions is not a window at all. Victims have endured a lifetime of suffering as a result of being sexually abused and then having that abuse covered up by the institutions that abused them. To exclude institutions from the window is just another step toward denying victims the relief that they desperately deserve. This is not a true window to justice."
In a tweet, Pennsylvania Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm said: "This is a window with Catholic Curtains and seeks only to protect the very institution that concealed the abuse to begin with...we must do better for ALL victims and those who sought to silence them and cover up decades of sexual abuse."
Under existing state law, victims must file civil lawsuits by age 30 and pursue criminal charges by age 50.
Lawmakers largely agree on abolishing the statute of limitations for criminal cases going forward, a provision of SB 261. But the battle continues over allowing individuals to sue for abuse that occurred decades ago.
The proposal to exclude institutions under a retroactive window would run counter to the recommendations laid out by the grand jury. This summer, the grand jury found that more than 1,000 children had been abused by more than 300 Catholic priests across the state over a period of seven decades.
Among their recommendations, grand jurors identified a retroactive window to file suits as a necessity to ensure such abuse never occurred again.
According to ChildUSA, an advocacy organization, a statute of limitations or retroactive window that were to exclude institutions would not provide justice for victims. Of the states that have enacted windows for justice, Utah and Georgia limited their windows to perpetrators only. Those states have extended little if any justice to victims, according to the organization.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who on Wednesday announced the guilty plea of a priest identified as a predator by investigators, reaffirmed his support for a broad retroactive window.
He said David Poulson's guilty plea elucidated the findings by the grand jury that the crimes included the sexual abuse of minors and the cover-up by the Catholic Church. Poulson, of the Diocese of Erie, admitted that at least one bishop had covered up his crimes.
"What is clear is that the grand jury recommended four things to ensure something like this never happened again and all four things need to be contained in any package that I'm going to support," Shapiro said." I speak for the grand jurors. I speak for survivors. I stand with them."
Asked about the negotiations in the GOP caucus room, Sen. Don White, an Indiana County Republican, said lawmakers seemed to have reach agreement.
"This option is being accepted across the caucus," he said. "It seems to be an issue that we are agreed to.. the settlement and compromise Senator Scarnati made sound reasonable and workable and whether the Supreme Court says no, I don't know. It will be tested as time passes but for now we seem to have a workable solution."
White said his district and constituents seemed to have "minimal impact" with regards to the reform bill, in terms of emails and phone calls.
"So I stay out of this issue," White said. "I think it's terrible and think people in the Catholic Church that help coverup should be thrown in jail for the rest of their lives but at the same time, I'm not going to set up what I feel is an unfair system that the only people around here who are going to make money are trial bar lawyers."
Just moments from entering the chamber, Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Delaware/Montgomery, said the refurbished proposal being discussed would be unacceptable to him.
"The proposal seemed a little odd so I'm tyring to figure it out," he said. He said under the proposal victims would be left with little recourse.
"I'm not sure how workable that is," Leach said. "I personally would be troubled by that proposal."