A Powerful Lobby Blocked Changes in Pa. Child Sex Abuse Laws. Here's Who and Here's Why.
By Candy Woodall
October 25, 2018
|Survivors of child sexual abuse hug in the Pennsylvania Capitol while awaiting legislation to respond to a landmark state grand jury report on child sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018 in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Marc Levy)|
Two powerful groups lined the halls of the Pennsylvania State Capitol Building on Oct. 17.
One group included people who identify as victims or survivors of Catholic priest sex abuse.
The other group represented the Catholic church and its insurance companies, which could have been on the hook for millions in reparations to such victims.
The victims and survivors argued for a bill that would let people sue the Catholic church over decades of abuses that were covered up.
The lobbyists argued that the bill was unconstitutional, and that the church could be left bankrupt, unable to help the community.
The victims and survivors had plenty of support: Attorney General Josh Shapiro, Gov. Tom Wolf, Republican nominee for governor Scott Wagner, the House of Representatives, victim advocates and other Democrats and Republicans who said abuse is a nonpartisan issue.
The Catholic lobbyists had plenty of money. They spent $3 million in Pennsylvania from January 2014 to June 2018, as lawmakers considered legislation that would change or extend when victims could sue their abusers. That total will grow once new expense reports are filed by an Oct. 30 deadline.
The lobbyists contend the church should not be held financially accountable for priest abuse or its cover-up. If the Catholic church is sued, secret files and private documents could be made public. And insurance companies, which have already paid millions in private settlements, might have to pay much more for the church's liability as new cases are brought forth.
Victims say it's clear that money talked in the Capitol last week because Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati's words were too familiar to be coincidental.
When Scarnati said it would be unconstitutional to open a retroactive window for priest abuse victims and survivors to file lawsuits, he repeated the words of an insurance industry lobbyist and an attorney for the Catholic Church.
In a news release on Aug. 29, Scarnati said:
"Many survivors continue to advocate for legislation which would include a retroactive component. While I fully appreciate their passion for this issue, it does not change the unconstitutionality of the reviver in light of Pennsylvania's Remedies Clause in our constitution, which prohibits a retroactive change to civil and criminal statute of limitations.
Two weeks earlier, on Aug. 14, Matt Haverstick, a Philadelphia lawyer representing the Harrisburg diocese and Greensburg diocese, said something similar in The Legal Intelligencer:
"There are those who want to change the statute of limitations in Pennsylvania in ways that I don't think are constitutional...Also, I think we're going to learn something important...after the argument at the end of September, on how to protect these constitutional rights that have been raised."
Haverstick reiterated his point to TIME magazine on Sept. 13:
"You just can't pass a law violating the constitution."
Sam Marshall, CEO of the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania, told TIME:
"It's not constitutional to require us, as insurers, to cover risk that we didn't know we'd have."
State campaign finance records show Scarnati received more money from the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania than any other candidate in the state, with 37 payments totaling more than $176,000 since 2004. More than $167,000 of that sum was received since 2008, with about $50,000 of it logged in 2016. The insurance industry is the fourth-largest donor base for Scarnati, who collected more than $676,000 from it in 18 years.
Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman received more than $326,000 in donations from the insurance lobby since 2006.
Insurance lobbyists have spent more than $27 million in Pennsylvania during the last 15 years, and the bulk of that money has gone to Republicans, especially Republican leaders. More than $10 million has gone to Democrats.
Scarnati received about $15,000 from Haverstick in 2016.
Overall, Scarnati has received more than $1.7 million from lawyers and lobbyists since 2000.
But he has rejected claims that he always seems to side with his campaign donors.
"I've been here 18 years. I've stood up to people nobody else has stood up to. I'm standing up today for victims," Scarnati said after a news conference last week.
Listen to mother of clergy abuse victim Corey Leech, Cindy Leech talks about the struggles of her sonPaul Kuehnel, firstname.lastname@example.org
That's when Scarnati pulled a vote on Senate Bill 261, saying it would have failed in the state House because because it allowed victims to sue their abusers, but not institutions. In short, it would have allowed people to sue the priests who abused them (if they're still alive), but would not have allowed them to sue the Catholic church for allegedly covering up the abuse.
The Pennsylvania House last month passed a bill to give victims of child sexual abuse a two-year window to sue abusers and institutions regardless of the time limits imposed by state law.
Current law requires victims to report abuse before they are 30 years old, excluding more than 2,000 priest abuse victims identified in Pennsylvania.
Victims and survivors supported the House bill, which was in line with the grand jury recommendations and removed the time limits for adult victims of child sexual abuse to file lawsuits. The measure passed overwhelmingly last month, but the Catholic church and insurance industry opposed it.
|In this file photo from June 30, 2015, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, speaks at a news conference after both the House and Senate passed the Republican version of the budget. Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat from York County, vetoed the full budget that night. (Photo: James Robinson/Pennlive.com via AP)|
Last Wednesday, on the final voting day of the year, the Senate shared its counterproposal -- SB261 -- which ultimately died without a floor vote.
That Senate bill was favored by lobbyists for the church and insurance industry, and it mirrors plans that were backed by lobbyists and passed in Georgia, Massachusetts and Utah, where a low number of lawsuits were filed amid a heavy lobbying presence.
The York Daily Record asked Senate leaders several questions:
When does the Senate expect to meet again and vote on SB261?
What is the Senate's response to people who say that Senate Republicans are being controlled by lobbyists?
What is driving Senate Republican leaders to exclude institutions in SB261?
Are senators getting pressure from lobbyists for the Catholic Conference or insurance industry?
Have Senate leaders met with lobbyists or representatives for the Catholic Conference and insurance industry? If so, when and how often?
Jennifer Kocher, spokeswoman for the Republican Caucus, said this in response:
"I'm going to refer you to Senator Scarnati's press conference from Wednesday. I've included the link here."
Scarnati, during his news conference after 11 p.m. Oct. 17, said his amendment was "a winner for all, except for the trial lawyers."
He said his bill would hold the church accountable with a $250 million compensation fund paid for by the church for "horrific sins of the past."
"I also don't want any organization to be bankrupt that might result in victims not receiving compensation," Scarnati said.
The Senate leader said his hope was to find a path forward with meaningful changes for victims, but he had no immediate plans to call senators back to Harrisburg.
"Whoever is negotiating for the other side, if they want to put down a reasonable counterproposal that I can find 26 votes for in the Senate, I'll bring the Senate back," Scarnati said.
Both Scarnati and Sen. Pat Browne, a Republican from the Lehigh Valley, said lawsuits against the Catholic church could create more victims by hurting beneficiaries that rely on church funding.
Scarnati accused the victims who stood in the Capitol Building of being politically motivated.
"It is clear to me by statements by the attorney general and others that this is about elections now, that we're going to throw people out of office that didn't do what we wanted them to do," he said.
Alex Boren, the executive director at victim's research organization Child USA, said she's still hopeful statute of limitation reform will become law, though she is sure "Catholic lobbying and insurance lobbying is definitely why it didn't pass last week."
"I don't think this is dead yet. I do think it will pass. It's a matter of passing the right legislation for victims. To railroad it through is not justice for victims and not good for anyone," she said.
Though victims who lobbied senators last week disagree with Scarnati's bill, they do agree with what he said after Senate Bill 261 wasn't put up for a vote.
"The losers tonight are victims," Scarnati said.
That includes thousands of Pennsylvanians who weren't abused by Catholics. Their justice continues to rely on two powerful groups battling over who should and shouldn't be held accountable for priest abuse.