Power Shift in Senate Could Reignite Push to Help Adult Survivors of Childhood Sex Abuse
By John Finnerty
February 13, 2020
HARRISBURG — The retirement of Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, will mean the departure from the Capitol of the most prominent opponent of efforts to open a window to immediately let adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse sue when their cases are beyond the statute of limitations.
Advocates for adult survivors of abuse say Scarnati’s departure will provide an opportunity for Pennsylvania to pass the window legislation that has already passed in other states, in many cases, states that acted in response to the public outcry inflamed by the Pennsylvania grand juries into the handling of priest abuse by the Catholic Church.
“We clearly will revisit the issue,” said Kathryn Robb, executive director of ChildUSA Advocacy, a Philadelphia-based think tank focused on child sexual abuse and statute of limitations reform. “Why should victims suffer in perpetuity but predators are protected by the passage of time?”
Scarnati announced late Wednesday that he is not seeking re-election to a sixth term in office when his term ends at the end of 2020. He has been Senate President Pro Tem for the past 14 years.
“After many conversations with family and close supporters, I have made a personal, and not political, decision that I will not be filing my petitions” to seek re-election," Scarnati said.
Shaun Dougherty, an adult survivor of abuse by a Johnstown priest, said Scarnati was “the biggest hurdle to justice” for abuse survivors.
Dougherty is now running for Senate as a Democrat in the 35th Senatorial District, represented by state Sen. Wayne Langerholc, R-Cambria County.
Dougherty said that his campaign is broader than just focusing on the efforts to open a window for civil lawsuits. But he said his experiences as a survivor of abuse lobbying at the Capitol have shown him how dysfunctional Harrisburg can be.
Langerholc said that even without Scarnati leading the Senate Republican caucus, it’s not clear that the remaining Senate Republicans will be that likely to change their position on the issue. The Senate last fall approved a plan to amend the state Constitution to allow for lawsuits by adult survivors of childhood sex abuse. A constitutional amendment must be approved twice in different legislative sessions before being approved by the voters.
Advocates, including those at Child USA, have asserted that the constitutional amendment process will take longer than necessary and that the change could be made by simply passing a conventional piece of legislation. Attorney General Josh Shapiro has also said the state could legally open a window for lawsuits by abuse survivors and criticized the Senate leadership for stalling on the issue.
Robb said that when lawmakers pay attention to science, it’s led to improved public policy on a wide variety of issues, such as food safety, vaping and use of child safety seats in cars. Research has shown that statutes of limitation are inappropriate because adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse deal with the trauma for the rest of their lives and in most cases, they don’t feel comfortable coming forward to report the abuse until decades after it happened, she said.
Eight states and the District of Columbia have opened windows to allow adult survivors of abuse to sue their abusers and those who covered up for the predators.
That includes New York, which opened a one-year window for lawsuits last August, and New Jersey which opened a two-year window for lawsuits in December.
“We didn’t use to know that monsters like Jerry Sandusky, Larry Nasser and Jeffrey Weinstein existed. Now we know, they have an obligation to do something about it,” Robb said. “This is a national movement. Pennsylvania is still in the dark ages.”
Langerholc said it would be unfair to measure Scarnati’s leadership based solely on the statute of limitations reform issue. Scarnati played a pivotal role in leading the Republican push for “fiscal constraint” to stop efforts by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf to raise taxes and increase spending, he said.
The Catholic Church opposed efforts to immediately open a civil window for lawsuits.
“The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference thanks Sen. Scarnati for his service to the commonwealth and we wish him the best down the road,” said Al Gnoza, a spokesman for the Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm for the state’s Catholic bishops.
The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference took a neutral position on the plan to open the window by amending the state Constitution.
“We did believe, however, that survivors were best helped immediately through the compensation programs instituted by the individual dioceses and administered by credible and independent third parties,” Gnoza said. “They have paid millions to survivors across Pennsylvania. We have much to atone for, and it’s our hope these settlements provided more timely help to survivors — rather than having to wait several years in the courts.”