Survivors Say Fight to Let Older Abuse Victims Sue Catholic Church Isn't over
By David Wenner
October 18, 2018
A former Catholic priest turned advocate for sexual abuse victims says he hasn't lost hope -- even after the collapse of a bill that would have created a window for older victims of abuse by priests to sue. The bill failed late Wednesday despite strong support among Pennsylvania lawmakers.
"There is no way I'm going to quit this fight," said James Faluszczak, a former Erie priest who says he was sexually abused by a priest as a child. "From my standpoint, nothing changes moving forward. We are going to keep pushing for a two-year retroactive window."
Faluszczak was reacting Thursday morning to the failure of a bill that would have given victims of abuse who are now adults a two-year window for suing both priests who abused them and the Catholic church. Under current law, they can't sue if they have already turned 30.
Fueled by the explosive grand jury report that concluded more than 300 Roman Catholic priests had abused at least 1,000 children in Pennsylvania over the past seven decades, the state House had overwhelmingly approved the two-year window.
But the bill may well have died in the state Senate late Wednesday, with a committee taking no action as the last scheduled voting day of the session passed.
The demise came after an amendment by Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, that would have created the two-year window to sue priests, but not the church. Scarnati pulled the bill from consideration after it became clear the House would reject it. His amendment also set the framework for a fund to compensate victims.
Faluszczak said on Thursday morning he's convinced a majority of senators would have supported the bill passed by the House. But he believes senators caved under pressure from Scarnati, who, Faluszczak believes, is under the sway of the Catholic church and its lobbyists.
For his part, Scarnati said late Wednesday his amendment "was further than I was comfortable with going, that's what took so much time, but I wanted to find middle ground and I wanted to negotiate in good faith." He has said he believes a retroactive window to sue is unconstitutional.
Failure to pass the bill before the the two-year legislative session expires would mean a new bill would have to be introduced in the new legislative session that begins in January.
Scarnati said he would bring senators back to Harrisburg if other lawmakers come up with a plan that can pass his chamber.
Shaun Dougherty, another Pennsylvania survivor of abuse by a priest, also had hard words for Scarnati on Thursday. He said that even with a strong majority, Scarnati "failed miserably" to get a bill passed. Worse, according to Dougherty, he did so as the world awaited Pennsylvania's response to the abuse detailed in the August grand jury report.
"We have just shown the world we are incapable, as a state, to protect our children from rape. That is what I am in shock about," he said.
The failure to pass anything, Dougherty said, "has me questioning whether we have the correct leadership in the Senate."
He said advocates will turn their focus on the next month's election. "We move into campaign mode. This movement does not adjourn, ever. We are going to do our level best to flip as many senate seats as possible in our favor."
SNAP, a national group for survivors of abuse in institutional settings, said Pennsylvania's senate "had a chance to make a real difference for survivors of sexual abuse. Instead, they kicked the can down the road and out of sight." The group further said, "The simple fact is that statutes of limitations only protect wrongdoers."
Faluszczak said he's resigned to "starting from scratch" on a bill. But he also predicted Republican senators will pay a price during the November election. Scarnati is not up for election.
Acknowleding that "it's baffling to me" that so many Republican senators apparently sided with Scarnati, he said "The ones who are up for reelection are really doing to have to give account of why they sided against victims."
Faluszczak said his greatest regret on Thursday centered on victims who so badly wanted the changes to the statute of limitations, and who "had the wind taken out of their sails."
Passing the bill would have gone far toward easing suffering that continues to cause victims to commit suicide, abuse substances or struggle in their marriages, he said.
Still, recent developments such as the grand jury report and the struggle over the bill served to shed more light on the issue, while letting victims know they have strong support. As a result, new victims will continue to come forward, putting ever more pressure on lawmakers to act on their behalf, Faluszczak said.
Overall, Pennsylvania lawmakers had shown a willingness to eliminate a time limit on criminal prosecution of priests who abuse children, and to increase to age 50 the window for future victims to sue.
But the Catholic church and private insurers, as well as some Republican senators, opposed a new window for lawsuits, saying it would create a financial incentive for people to sue, and for lawyers to bring cases, while also cutting into the church's charity outreach.
Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, which represents Roman Catholic dioceses, said last month they are willing to set up a fund to compensate victims.
On Thursday, the conference issued a brief written statement, saying "As has been done in other states, PCC supports legislation that includes a compensation fund administered by an independent third party. This would allow survivors to begin receiving the justice they deserve more quickly so they can continue their healing process."
However, the conference refused to answer questions regarding the status of the fund it has proposed, or whether it will create the fund absent legislation.
It's widely acknowledged that funds such as the one supported by the conference allow victims to receive compensation faster, although payouts are typically smaller than those awarded by juries and courts. A fund would also enable the church to settle cases without opening church records to the public.
While the court payouts are typically larger, up to 40 percent of payouts go to lawyers and legal fees.