Pa. bill on church sex abuse stuck on question of lawsuits

By Marc Levy
October 17, 2018

[with video]

Legislation responding to a Pennsylvania grand jury report accusing hundreds of Roman Catholic priests of sexually abusing children over decades remained under wraps in the state Senate on Tuesday amid disagreement over key provisions.

Republican state senators met privately for several hours before emerging to say GOP majority leaders had made an offer in an attempt to secure an agreement with the House of Representatives and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

"We want an agreement that we can get to the governor and that will put this to rest," said Sen. Rich Alloway, R-Franklin. "Now that may or may not happen. I mean, obviously there's still a lot of moving parts here."

Work on the bill is running up against Wednesday, the Legislature's last scheduled voting session day in 2018. It is also occurring amid election season, when 228 of 253 legislative seats are on the ballot.

Wolf's office said Tuesday evening that it had not been made aware of a Senate GOP offer.

Disagreement surrounds the grand jury's recommendation to give now-adult victims another chance to sue a perpetrator or an institution that covered it up if they are otherwise barred by time limits in state law. The window to sue would last two years.

Wolf supports the window, and the Republican-controlled House approved it last month. The Senate's top Republican, President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, has opposed it, and instead backed a church-created fund to compensate victims, although Republican senators appeared somewhat split.

"I am for the 2-year window, I'm for the victims, so I don't know where the rest of them are," said Sen. Tom McGarrigle, R-Delaware.

On Tuesday, Republican senators said giving adult victims a reprieve to file civil lawsuits is not off the table, although they would not describe a counteroffer by Senate GOP leaders.

Republican senators also say they are concerned that victims of abuse face a higher standard under state law when suing governmental entities, such as a school district, than when suing a private entity, such as the Catholic diocese.

The nearly 900-page state grand jury report released Aug. 14 said more than 300 Roman Catholic priests had abused at least 1,000 children over the past seven decades in six Pennsylvania dioceses. It also accused senior church officials of systematically covering up complaints.

The grand jury's report has propelled a fresh debate over changing the law in Pennsylvania . Legislation has been simmering since 2016, after a prior grand jury report detailed allegations of the abuse of hundreds of children over decades in the Altoona-Johnstown diocese.

Pennsylvania lawmakers have broadly agreed to eliminate time limits in criminal prosecutions of child sexual abuse, which currently goes up to a victim's age of 50. They also have agreed to raise the time limit, from the victim's age of 30 to 50, for a future victim to sue.

But an entrenched disagreement over giving now-adult victims another chance to sue has held up passage of a package of changes.

Scarnati maintains that such a provision is unconstitutional, and the Catholic Church and for-profit insurers oppose it. Attorney General Josh Shapiro maintains that it is constitutional.

Similar windows have been approved over the years in several other states.

Both civil lawsuits and victims' compensation funds may deliver money to victims who have suffered for years from the memory of their abuse as a child, although there are crucial differences.

Lawyers who help settle child sexual abuse cases say the courts generally promise a bigger payout and the ability for a victim to confront a perpetrator, while dioceses face the possibility that a judge can order them to divulge records of how it handled child sexual abuse complaints.

As much as 40 percent of the settlements or court awards can go to lawyers' fees, and the church's defenders say that motivates civil lawyers to press for lawsuits.

A victim's compensation fund protects diocesan records from court-ordered scrutiny but delivers a faster payout to victims.


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