New AG says proposed Pa. child-sex abuse law wasn’t unconstitutional

| 9/22/16 | Maria Panaritis | Phila. Inquirer |

Freshly appointed to the helm of an office racked by tumult, Pennsylvania Attorney General Bruce Beemer is rejecting a key position taken by his predecessor, saying he believes a child sex-abuse bill in Harrisburg that would have allowed lawsuits for decades-old cases would not have violated the state constitution.

In an interview, Beemer contradicted the legal view offered by then-Solicitor General Bruce L. Castor Jr., who told a Senate panel in June that he believed the measure, opposed by the Catholic Church, would be rejected by the Supreme Court. The Senate Judiciary Committee then gutted the provision, citing Castor’s testimony and that of several others. The bill had been overwhelmingly approved by the House in April.

“I do not agree with it,” Beemer said of Castor’s interpretation of the law, adding that “reasonable legal minds can differ” on the matter.

“Ultimately, you would think it would be up to the highest court in Pennsylvania to determine if it’s unconstitutional,” Beemer said in the interview Tuesday night.

Beemer’s public declaration comes as advocates consider whether to push to rewrite the amended bill in the days ahead or reintroduce the original measure in the legislative session that begins in January.

Beemer, whose term expires in January, said he had no plans to draft a formal legal opinion unless asked to do so by lawmakers, and noted that he is in a caretaker leadership role until a new attorney general is inaugurated. But if asked, Beemer said, he would consider evaluating the bill and producing an opinion.

 

Both candidates running for attorney general said Wednesday that they, too, believed the original measure was constitutional and that if elected, they would draft formal opinions reflecting this if asked to do so by lawmakers.

Democrat Josh Shapiro slammed his opponent, Republican Sen. John Rafferty Jr., and Rafferty’s Senate colleagues for having approved a weakened version of the House bill.

“I was extremely disappointed,” Shapiro said, adding that he hoped the House would resend its original version back to the Senate. “The House bill is the stronger bill.”

Rafferty, vice chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee that presided over the constitutionality hearing, reiterated Wednesday that he had supported the original House bill and voted against the Senate amendment to eliminate the retroactive extension of the civil statute of limitations. He said he voted for the final version only after it became clear that the original House bill had insufficient support in the Senate.

“I stood tall,” Rafferty said Wednesday, in an apparent swipe back at Shapiro, “rather than sit behind a desk and issue a policy statement. At least something was done. We’ll build forward from whatever the House is going to do there.”

A spokeswoman for Senate Republicans described Beemer’s position as “one lawyer’s opinion as translated through a reporter,” and said she hoped the House would approve the amended Senate bill.

“The legislation in its current form expands the criminal and civil statute of limitations on child sexual abuse moving forward, and that is no minor accomplishment,” Jennifer Kocher, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre), said in a statement.

Beemer said he was speaking at this time because changing the civil statute retroactively was among the recommendations of a state grand jury that spent two years investigating decades of priest abuse and cover-ups in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese.

That grand jury, whose findings were made public in March, worked for “months and months” before arriving at those recommendations, he said.

“Those recommendations were thoughtful and in there for a reason,” Beemer said Tuesday. “I am supportive of what they found.”

As one of the highest-ranking officials of the Attorney General’s Office over the last four years, Beemer oversaw the work of the agents and prosecutors in that probe – an effort that reportedly has expanded to least six other dioceses in the state.

Beemer’s comments come weeks after his appointment and Castor’s departure. Castor himself had been a caretaker for then-embattled Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane, who resigned after her perjury and obstruction conviction.

When he testified in June, Castor had been in office only a few months, having been named solicitor general after the grand jury’s 147-page Altoona report.

That probe also led to criminal conspiracy charges against three former leaders of an Altoona-area Franciscan order, and prompted the GOP-led House to approve the measure changing child sex-abuse laws with a retroactivity provision that had been thwarted for a decade by the church and insurance lobbies.

Months later, the GOP-led Senate, with Democrats lined up unanimously behind President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati (R., Jefferson), passed the amended version, which no longer contained the controversial measure.

The House bill sought to extend from age 30 to 50 the deadline for victims to sue abusers or the institutions that employed or supervised them. Applied retroactively, it would have enabled for the first time some Pennsylvanians sexually assaulted as children in the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s to seek damages.

The amended Senate bill would extend the civil statute to age 50 for lawsuits against institutions and eliminate it for lawsuits against abusers, but only for future abuse victims. It also would eliminate the criminal statute of limitations, so prosecutors can charge suspected attackers at any time.

 

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