BILL WHITE: Kathleen Kane reverses field on key child sex abuse reform

“Sen. John Rafferty, R-Montgomery, summed it up well: ‘I believe constitutional decisions are best made by those wearing black robes.'”

6/13/16 | Bill White | The Morning Call

In the continuum of bizarre episodes involving state Attorney General Kathleen Kane, her double-cross Monday of child sex abuse victims probably ranks pretty low. She has set a remarkably high standard for weirdness.

Still, Monday’s shocking turnabout — from powerful advocate to weaselly waffler — left a lot of people scratching their heads. “It’s very confusing to me,” said John Salveson, president of the Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse.

I’ve been writing about House Bill 1947, which easily passed the House in April and would eliminate the statute of limitations for criminal cases of child sexual abuse and extend the statute for civil cases until the victim reaches age 50, retroactively, from the present age 30. The state Senate Judiciary Committee, which is considering the bill, held a hearing Monday to consider the constitutionality of retroactively changing the age for civil suits.

There are strong legal opinions on each side of that issue, and we heard both at Monday’s hearing, albeit much more heavily weighted toward those — some of whom were in the employ of chief opponents the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the Pennsylvania Insurance Federation — who think it would be ruled unconstitutional under Pennsylvania law. The only expert testifying that what they called the “revival” portion of HB 1947 is constitutional was constitutional lawyer and long-time statute of limitations reform advocate Marci Hamilton, the go-to expert on this subject around the country and even the world.

She was critical of committee Chair Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, for the lack of balance in the testimony, but she more than held her own. I learned afterward that a law firm representing abuse survivors in Delaware is saying Greenleaf should recuse himself because representatives of his law firm argued against similar legislation in Delaware. Greenleaf, who made no mention of his apparent conflict, said afterward that the Senate parliamentarian has ruled he needn’t recuse himself.

The Legislature has not been friendly toward statute of limitations changes in the past. But a new grand jury report about child sex abuse by priests, combined with an Oscar-winning movie on the subject, have given these efforts enough momentum that any attempt to bury them again in committee would be politically risky.

Still, optimism about the bill’s prospects took a hit when word began spreading among abuse victims and advocates late last week that solicitor general Bruce Castor would be testifying on behalf of the attorney general’s office that any retroactive change in the statute would be unconstitutional, reversing the position taken by the office in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese grand jury report and by Kane in various rallies and news conferences.

It’s hard to imagine a stranger choice than Castor to provide legal advice on a sex abuse law. Nationally, the former Montgomery County district attorney is best known for entering into some sort of undocumented non-prosecution pact years ago with the lawyers for alleged serial sex assaulter Bill Cosby. Less dramatically, in the case involving allegations that three top Penn State officials interfered with the investigation into assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky’s child sex abuse, new solicitor general Castor offered a legal opinion that resulted in the most serious charges against them being dropped.

So under the circumstances, his opinion that the Judiciary Committee should dramatically weaken the law wasn’t particularly surprising. What was surprising was that he was speaking for an office in which prosecutors in the high-profile grand jury report clearly don’t agree — and whose leader until Monday had espoused a completely different position in a very public way, burnishing her tarnished image by representing herself as a strong advocate for survivors.

Yet there Kathleen Kane was as the hearing’s first speaker, claiming to be speaking for children and survivors of abuse and urging the senators to pass the bill in its entirety — unless they believe that the revival portion of the bill is unconstitutional.

Which her office now says it is.

In that case, she said, they should amend the bill to strike that provision , rather than see it sent back by the courts.”We are here to get it right,” she said.

It was an astoundingly brazen attempt to appear to support a bill that she in effect was telling them to gut. Et tu, Kathy?

Hamilton commented afterward on the political opportunism of someone who would publicly bask in the publicity of the grand jury report and then join in attacking one of its most important conclusions.

“For her to now go back and take back that portion of this bill is really shocking,” she said.

Hamilton advised committee members that their proper course, given the conflicting views on the law and the opportunity to help victims and unmask hidden abusers, is not to follow Castor’s advice. It’s to pass the bill as it is and let the state Supreme Court rule on its constitutionality if it’s challenged.

Sen. John Rafferty, R-Montgomery, summed it up well: “I believe constitutional decisions are best made by those wearing black robes.” 610-820-6105

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