Victims call on Senate to return to Capitol

By John Finnerty
Johnstown Tribune Democrat
October 24, 2018

Pennsylvania Victims Advocate Jennifer Storm speaks at a rally of childhood sex crime victims Wednesday.
Photo by John Finnert

The U.S. Department of Justice has stepped in where the Pennsylvania Senate would not – confronting the Catholic Church over allegations of child sexual abuse by priests.

About 50 childhood sex abuse victims and their supporters came to the Capitol on Wednesday to call on the state Senate to return and vote on legislation that would allow for civil lawsuits in cases in which the statute of limitations has expired.

“Where are they?” asked Jennifer Storm, the Pennsylvania's victim advocate. “They’re at home campaigning for your vote and we’re here.”

The General Assembly ended its fall voting session last week without the Senate taking up a version of Senate Bill 261 that had been amended in the House to include a two-year window for lawsuits against child molesters and institutions, like the Catholic Church, that had covered up their crimes.

The issue emerged as the dominant political issue at the Capitol after a statewide grand jury report found that 300 predator priests had molested at least 1,000 victims over decades. That report included a number of recommendations for legislative change, including the move to open a two-year window.

Senate Republicans, led by Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, have opposed the move to open that lawsuit window, saying it would be unconstitutional.

In a statement released Wednesday, Scarnati said he won’t summon the Senate to return to the capitol until there’s been a compromise bill that he thinks will garner enough votes to pass in the Senate. He proposed an alternate plan that would have allowed victims to sue their abusers but not the institutions. His plan would also have allowed for victims to seek compensation from the church or other institutions from an independent fund, instead of in court.

Storm said she thinks that if the Senate voted on the current version of SB 261, it would pass. Storm said making a change to allow people to seek criminal charges retroactively would be unconstitutional but that the move to allow lawsuits in expired cases would be legal. Attorney General Josh Shapiro has also supported the civil window as a legal way to provide justice to victims.

Scarnati, in a press conference after the legislative session ended, said proponents of the civil window concept were politicizing the controversy.

In the statement released Wednesday, Scarnati repeated the assertion, noting ads focusing on the statute of limitations controversy and intended to help Democrats running for Senate, have begun to air.

Victims who spoke Wednesday took umbrage.

Shaun Dougherty, a Johnstown native who was abused by a priest, said that he and other proponents of the civil window concept spent hours at the Capitol on the last day of the legislative session only to be left disappointed by the Senate’s inaction.

“We were here from 8:30 in the morning (last Wednesday) until 12:30 in the morning (last Thursday). Politics did play a role, but not for us,” Dougherty said. “We’re fighting for our lives.”

Storm said research suggests about 6 percent of child sex abuse victims were targeted by priests. While the vast majority of victims are abused in other settings, the opposition to the civil window by the Catholic bishops has put them in the spotlight, she said.

“The Catholic Church has made this a Catholic issue,” she said.

Scarnati said one of the other concerns raised by Senate Republicans was that it used different standards for cases of abuse involving public and private institutions.

“As many advocates point out, six percent of victims come from the Catholic Church, which makes it even more important that all victims are treated the same,” he said.

Kristen Houser, chief public affairs officer for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, said the window is necessary to provide a level of accountability to spur institutions to make the changes to stop covering up abuse by their employees.

Fear of lawsuits will make it more likely that organizational leaders stop putting their “reputational interests” ahead of the need to make needed reforms or take accountability for misdeeds, she said.

“It’s OK if we say money needs to part of this equation,” he said. “Money has the power to make change.”



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