State Senate reintroduces child sex abuse bill that lifts some time limits for lawsuits
By Steve Esack, January 30, 2017, The Morning Call
In a surprise move Monday, a Senate panel resurrected and then unanimously approved a controversial bill to lift time limits for some child sex abuse victims to sue their alleged abusers and employers who protected them.
But the bill, which is identical to Senate legislation that failed last session, would not permit victims, if they are 31 or older, to retroactively sue their perpetrators as the House had sought following scathing grand jury report into child sex abuse at a Catholic diocese in western Pennsylvania.
After the Senate Judiciary Committee's 13-0 vote, Senate President Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, said he reintroduced the bill in an effort to start negotiations early.
"This is a bill I thought, because of my involvement last year, I will take the lead and we'll work it through the process and the process has just begun here," he said. "My hope is we get the bill out of the Senate this week but that is yet to be seen."
Last year, the House led the charge on tougher civil and criminal penalties for child sex abuse.
Lawmakers acted following a statewide grand jury report that accused two Catholic bishops of allowing at least 50 priests and other religious leaders to sexually abuse hundreds of children for five decades in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown. Lawmakers also were moved by Democratic Rep. Mark Rozzi's emotional public testimony about his own abuse at the hands of priest when he was 13.
In March, the House approved a bill giving some adults an additional 20 years to sue for past abuse they may have endured as children. The House bill raised the age limit for old lawsuits from 30 to 50.
The House bill also erased the statute of limitations on when future criminal sex-abuse charges can be filed, meaning sex charges could be brought any time after alleged abuse occurred.
When the bill moved to the Senate, senators kept the criminal provision for new cases but removed the retroactive civil lawsuit clause, which came under opposition from two powerful lobbying groups, Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania.
Like the lobbying groups and some legal experts, senators believed the state Supreme Court would deem the retroactive lawsuits unconstitutional, which could jeopardize the legality of the whole bill. Rather than allow lawsuits on old cases, the Senate removed time limits for a future victim or a victim who is not yet 30 to sue the abuser and anyone who may have known about it and failed to report it to authorities.
The House then let the Senate version die without a vote.
While lawmakers debated, the attorney general's office launched another grand jury investigation in six of the state's eight Catholic dioceses, including Allentown. The ongoing investigation is examining church records and taking testimony to determine if officials in those dioceses participated in the same coverup schemes as occurred in Altoona-Johnstown and Philadelphia Archdiocese.
The bill approved by the Senate committee Monday is an exact copy of the failed bill, and Scarnati said he is ready to negotiate with the House on every provision but the retroactive clause.
"It's not that I don't stand with victims; I stand with the constitution," Scarnati said. "I detest what these victims suffered or allegedly suffered. This bill will do much good for those moving forward."
Amy Hill, spokeswoman for the conference, said her group just learned about the Senate vote and was not sure what was in the bill. Still, she said last year's civil statutes of limitations debate drowned out the Catholic community's commitment to healing and recovery for victims.
"However the legislative debate proceeds, it will not diminish the Catholic Church's sincere commitment to the emotional well-being of individuals who have been impacted by the crime of childhood sexual abuse, no matter how long ago the crime was committed," Hill said. "We encourage anyone who is a survivor of abuse by someone in the Catholic Church to first contact authorities and report it, then contact their local diocese to get assistance for support services."
In a phone interview, Rozzi said he appreciated the Senate's swift and somewhat surprising move to vote on the bill. But, he said, the retroactive clause remains the most important piece of the bill as evidenced by the Altoona-Johnstown report, the ongoing grand jury investigation and calls many representatives are getting from past victims around the state.
"I'm happy we are going to get a chance to work on this right away," Rozzi said. "I've always said we don't need another grand jury to do the right thing and this is good public policy. If someone decided to challenge it in court, so be it."
The Senate could vote on the bill on Wednesday and move it to the House.