Retroactivity provision of new child sex-abuse law may disappear

“Two Capitol sources also said Solicitor General Bruce L. Castor Jr. planned to testify at a Senate hearing Monday that the measure is unconstitutional, giving lawmakers on the influential Judiciary Committee more justification to amend or reject it outright.” 

6/11/16 | Maria Panaritis | Philadelphia Inquirer 

Citing the effect of lobbying by the Catholic Church, supporters of a change to Pennsylvania’s child sex abuse laws said Friday they expected the Senate to dilute or defeat a controversial bill that would let victims sue for abuse that occurred decades ago.

Two Capitol sources also said Solicitor General Bruce L. Castor Jr. planned to testify at a Senate hearing Monday that the measure is unconstitutional, giving lawmakers on the influential Judiciary Committee more justification to amend or reject it outright.

Mr. Castor, the highest-ranking lawyer in the Attorney General’s Office, has declined to disclose the focus of his testimony. Both he and Attorney General Kathleen Kane are scheduled to appear at the hearing, one chaired by Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, Mr. Castor’s onetime law partner and a fellow Montgomery County Republican.

Advocates said Mr. Greenleaf would ultimately cite unconstitutionality as a basis for backing away from the provision in the bill most sought by victims and most reviled by the church: One allowing victims as old as 50 to sue abusers and their employers for acts that occurred as far back as the 1970s.

“It looks like they’re going to remove my amendment,” said Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, a former clergy sex-abuse victim, who sponsored the bill that overwhelmingly passed the House in April. “Victims, oh my God, they’re going to be devastated.”

A Greenleaf spokesman dismissed predictions of the outcome as rumor.

“The purpose of Monday’s hearing is to consider the constitutionality and the legality of that bill,” said spokesman Aaron Zappia. “The senator intends to have a fair and balanced hearing on the legislation. It’s not designed to defeat anything. It is to gather testimony.”

Mr. Castor declined Friday to comment.

In an interview earlier in the week, Mr. Greenleaf declined, as he has for weeks, to say whether he supports the provision, even in principle. He said he first wanted to fully examine whether it was legal.

Sen. John Rafferty Jr., the committee’s vice chairman and another Montgomery County Republican, deferred to Mr. Greenleaf’s office this week when asked about the bill’s likely fate in the Senate.

Mr. Rafferty is running for attorney general against Democrat Josh Shapiro, a Montgomery County commissioner, who has said he finds the bill constitutional and supports it.

For Mr. Castor to argue the measure is unconstitutional would conflict with Ms. Kane’s own comments and the recommendations of a grand jury whose report she sanctioned and released earlier this year.

In March, Ms. Kane announced charges against three Catholic priests as part of widespread clergy abuse and alleged cover-ups in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese. Most crimes, however, were too old to prosecute or litigate in civil court, given the state’s current laws.

At the time, Ms. Kane urged that the state laws be changed so there is no time limit on when child victims may seek justice in civil courts.

“Victims need to be heard,” she said at a news conference to discuss how hundreds of victims were abused by Altoona-Johnstown priests over decades. “Abolishing the statute would allow these predators to be held accountable until the last day of their lives.”

A few weeks later, she named Mr. Castor to the newly created post of Pennsylvania Solicitor General. Stripped of her law license as she awaits her trial on perjury and obstruction charges, Ms. Kane’s appointment effectively gave Mr. Castor the authority to make legal determinations for the Attorney General’s Office.

In an interview Thursday, Mr. Castor said it was his idea to analyze the bill and offer senators an opinion on its constitutionality. But he said he had Ms. Kane’s support.

Monday’s hearing comes after priests at parishes across the Philadelphia archdiocese last week spread word of the church’s opposition, either by speaking at Mass or in church bulletins or in some other fashion.

Archbishop Charles Chaput and the church’s lobbying arm, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, have called the retroactive provision of the law unfair for not uniformly applying to public institutions. (Supporters say public institutions can still be sued for gross negligence under state law.) Archbishop Chaput also has warned this could be financially destructive, bankrupting dioceses and hurting church members who had no role in past abuse.

Some members of the House expressed anger this week at being called out by name in their church bulletins, handouts, or priests on the altar.

All three leaders of the Judiciary Committee, including minority chairman Daylin Leach, represent districts within the Philadelphia Archdiocese.

Mr. Rozzi said one sign of the shifting political winds came Tuesday, when Ms. Kane called his aide and asked if the lawmaker would support a version of the bill that was stripped of the controversial retroactivity provision. According to Mr. Rozzi, Ms. Kane told his aide she had been in contact with Mr. Greenleaf and others whom she would not name, he said.

Mr. Rozzi said that he asked to speak directly with the attorney general but that she did not call him back.

Ms. Kane declined to comment Friday.

A key House staffer said he, too, had heard about such maneuvering.

“The constitutionality question is being used to close this whole discussion down. The Catholic Church is at the forefront of that discussion,” said Chris Winters, top aide to Rep. Thomas Caltagirone, D-Berks, a longtime foe of the measure whose reversal this year was key to its House passage in March.

Mr. Rozzi warned of repercussions if the Senate removes the retroactive provision or otherwise sinks the bill. And he said Mr. Greenleaf “should be held accountable by the people in his district and his constituents” if he allows changes to the measure.

“This makes me feel sick to the stomach,” he said. “We see justice ahead and all of a sudden the door is closing in on us. And you know there’s forces at work behind the scenes that are derailing this.”

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