Pa Senate's Inaction on Child Sex Abuse Bill Was Cowardly

By Bill White
Morning Call
October 22, 2018

The Pennsylvania Senate's top Republican, President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, left, with Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh. (Marc Levy / AP)

To paraphrase journalist and social critic H.L. Mencken, no one ever went broke underestimating the cowardice, dysfunction and bad priorities of our state Legislature.

So I can’t say I was shocked to see our state Senate head home last week without taking action on a bill that would reform statutes of limitations for victims of child sex abuse.

In fact, the Senate leader who played the biggest role in blocking Senate Bill 261 from a vote, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, claimed he was doing the responsible thing by trying to remove the piece of the bill most important to many survivors of abuse and that has been called for in grand jury findings on child sex abuse in various Pennsylvania dioceses.

In a late night press conference last week after he had sent the senators home, Scarnati blamed the departure without a vote on … well, everyone else. He said no one would negotiate with him in good faith.

“The attorney general hasn’t moved,” he said. “The House hasn’t moved. The governor hasn’t moved. They have only thrown arrows at my concessions.”

The abuse survivors who have been holding rallies and demonstrations in the Capitol didn’t get away unscathed by Scarnati, either. “The victims in this building are politically motivated right now,” he said. “It’s clear to me by statements of the attorney general and others that this is about elections now. Throw the people out of office that didn’t want to do what we want them to do.”

Actually, that’s not a bad idea.

As state Rep. Thomas Murt, R-Bucks, a longtime advocate for providing court access for more child sex abuse victims, told me Monday, “The statute of limitations is the best friend a child molester has. The second best friend is a Legislature that won’t take action to defend children or provide justice to victims of child sex abuse.”

In fairness, our state House deserves a pass on this latest example of why we should be ashamed of the people who represent us in Harrisburg. For the second time in three years, House members responded to a devastating grand jury report on child sex abuse in the state’s Catholic churches by legislatively acknowledging that Pennsylvania’s antiquated statute of limitations laws for child sex abuse cases are protecting pedophiles and their enablers and denying justice to the people who suffered at their hands.

Two years ago, the Senate blocked the House’s attempt to provide retroactive access to civil courts for survivors blocked by the laws as they existed when they were children, claiming that it would be unconstitutional. This struck me and many others at the time, and still today, as a convenient excuse for yielding to powerful lobbyists from the Catholic Church and insurance industry.

Rather than accept the Senate’s watered-down version of statute of limitations reform, the House let that bill die. It hoped that the next grand jury report — this one on child sex abuse in the six remaining Catholic dioceses — would create such a public outcry that the Senate wouldn’t be able to resist the outcry for a two-year window to give older victims a chance to confront their abusers, and those who helped make further abuse possible, in court.

In the wake of that devastating report, the House overwhelmingly voted last month to amend the existing statute of limitations bill, SB 261, to open a two-year window.

This put the focus on Scarnati, the idea’s most visible legislative opponent in 2016 and again this year. Would he allow a vote on the bill?


Scarnati claimed at his press conference that there weren’t enough yes votes to pass SB 261 as it had been amended by the House, a bill he called “a disaster.”

He said he had enough support to pass his alternative, which included a compensation fund for victims, perhaps funded by Pennsylvania’s dioceses, and a provision that only would allow retroactive suits against individual perpetrators, not institutions.

House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Dauphin, and advocates for survivors rejected limiting the window to individuals only. So Scarnati said he concluded there was no reason to put that up for a vote, either.

He was joined at his press conference by state Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, who actually claimed Scarnati should be commended for looking beyond one dimension of the problem by protecting all the people who would be harmed because they depend on services provided by the Catholic Church. He argued that might be threatened if the church suffered significant financial losses in lawsuits.

“This is not about institutions, it’s about beneficiaries,” Browne said, “making sure we’re not spreading the pain to other people.”

You know what? When it comes to this issue, I’m fine with keeping my eye on the main dimension, which is that people who have molested children or institutions that hid their crimes should be held accountable, not rewarded because they covered the molestation up until the statute of limitations expired.

And I haven’t found those who speak for the survivors to be as inflexible as Scarnati claimed.

State Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, who as a child was molested by his priest and has been the most visible legislative advocate, told me weeks ago and again this week that he has no problem with giving ground on some of the issues Scarnati has raised, including creating a voluntary compensation fund and ditching the two-tiered system that creates different levels of proof and caps on compensation for private or public defendants.

The only thing that’s not negotiable is the unrestricted two-year window. Unfortunately, Scarnati and others in the Senate seem to feel the same way.

Murt told me, “It’s entirely up to the Senate. They have the vehicle to get this done.”

That brings me back to Scarnati’s comment about political motivations. Fact is, plenty of Republicans have been leaders in this effort to give older victims access to our justice system. Both those House votes have been overwhelmingly bipartisan, as was some of the Senate opposition and support two years ago.

People on each side of the issue have acknowledged to me that some senators have changed their minds since then. But without a vote, we’ll have no way of knowing how many — and of making each of those senators responsible for the way they responded to that grand jury report and the pleas of these survivors.

I suspect that’s just the way many of them like it. So for me, unless they have been vocal in their support of the two-year window, I’m going to assume they are part of the problem, not part of the solution, including our entire local Senate delegation, Republicans and Democrats.

They didn’t get to vote. But we do.








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