Big issue in Harrisburg: How long should sex-abuse victims have to sue their attackers?

| 10/1/16 | Kathleen E. Carey |Delaware County Daily Times |

Childhood sexual abuse is devastating. Its long-term effects impact many facets of society.

It’s an issue that is complex and disconcerting. Many from our homes, schools, churches, law enforcement agencies and governmental institutions grapple to contain and maybe, someday, eradicate it.

The sexual abuse of minors is a worldwide epidemic that captured much attention here in the United States 14 years ago with the abuse and concealment found in the Archdiocese of Boston. Here, more than 60 priests under the auspices of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia were identified in 2005 and 2011 grand jury reports to have abused dozens of children. Various legislative efforts have been made to address this legacy.

In an Archdiocese of Philadelphia training film shown to create safe environments for children, Dr. David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, explained that between 5 and 10 percent of adult men and 20 percent of women say they were molested as children.

At question is what should be done with the perpetrators — and in some cases, the institutions that enabled them.

For years the Pennsylvania General Assembly has grappled with legislation to address the criminal and civil penalties associated with the offense. Most recently, this year, a bill known as HB 1947 emerged.

The version that passed in the House of Representatives in April by a vote of 180-15 eliminates the statute of limitations for criminal charges and extends the deadline for a victim to file a civil lawsuit against their alleged abuser. Currently, a victim has 12 years after they reach age 18 to bring a civil action, or until they reach age 30. House Bill 1947 adds 32 years to that window, extending the window to age 50.

State Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-126, of Berks County included a provision in the initial bill that would allow childhood sexual abuse survivors who are adults now the chance to file civil suits against the individuals who harmed them and, in cases where applicable, the institutions that aided them. That provision was included in the version passed overwhelmingly by the House in April. It was not included in the Senate version in the summer.

In early June, a letter from Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput opposing the legislation was distributed or made available at 219 parishes. It described the bill as “destructive legislation being advanced as a good solution” that is a “clear attack on the church, her parishes and her people.”

The letter claimed private institutions would be treated differently than public ones in the original version of the bill as “gross negligence” is more difficult to prove than “negligence” alone.

Questions were posed into the long-term financial viability of parishes in the event of the legislation’s passage.

Church officials said information regarding the archdiocese’s efforts on prevention and responding to victims’ needs were also handed out at that time.

The campaign became personal for certain lawmakers who supported the bill — like state Rep. Nick Miccarelli, R-162, of Ridley Park, who was named in his church bulletin, and state Rep. Jamie Santora, R-163, of Upper Darby, who said intimidation tactics had been used by church management.

The bill then went before the state Senate Judiciary Committee, where much of the testimony surrounded issues of its constitutionality. Advocates said that was an issue for the courts to decide while contending it was constitutional.

Much of the testimony surrounding whether or not the legislation would pass constitutional muster revolved around a 1908 Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision, Lewis v. Pennsylvania Railroad Co., which involved a train conductor who died on the job. His widow sued the company and as that was pending, the General Assembly repealed a law barring such suits.

At the June hearing, then-state Solicitor General Bruce Castor said the state Supreme Court concluded that “retroactive legislation that reduces a defendant’s defenses or exemptions from demands cannot be applied where the defense has vested.”

Concerns also rose for defendants who were deceased or who were unable to defend themselves due to incapacitation.

Victim advocates said childhood sexual abuse is on par with crimes like murder, that carry no statute of limitations because the victims are impacted for the duration of their lives.

Some legislators and advocates questioned the impartiality of the hearings. The head of the committee, state Sen. Stewart J. Greenleaf, R-12, of Willow Grove, recused himself after it was learned his law firm, Elliott Greenleaf, fought a similar law in Delaware and represented the Norbertine Fathers, who founded Archmere Academy, in the case of a student who alleged almost three years of abuse. Greenleaf said he had no direct involvement in that effort.

In addition, Castor’s testimony drew scrutiny. As Montgomery County’s district attorney in 2005, Castor entered into a non-prosecution pact regarding sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby.

Eventually, House Bill 1947 was amended, moved out of committee and the Senate approved the amended version by a vote of 49-0 – without the Rozzi retroactive amendment. Because the Senate’s version is different than the House’s, it was referred back to the House, where members will consider approving this rendition. Rozzi is considering reinserting that amendment into the legislation.

The issue of sexual abuse of children has drawn wider attention in recent years.

Four years ago, former Penn State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison after being convicted of assaulting dozens of at-risk and underprivileged boys over a 15-year period. A separate investigative report found that university officials had concealed facts to keep the information from being made public.

In March, a Pennsylvania grand jury determined hundreds of students in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown had been sexually abused by at least 50 priests dating back 40 years. That grand jury recommended that the state Legislature enact a window for victims who are now adults to seek restitution.

Last month, it was revealed that the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s grand jury investigation had been expanded to cover the dioceses of Erie, Greensburg, Pittsburgh, Scranton and Allentown, as well as Altoona-Johnstown.

Jeff Johnson, spokesman for the state Attorney General’s office, urged any victim in the state to call their hotline at 888-538-8541.

As the fall session of the General Assembly has commenced, HB 1947 has been returned to the House for final approval. What the amended version includes is unclear as GOP Senate officials and Democratic representatives have varying perspectives on what is included in the most recent version.

Jennifer Kocher, press secretary of the Pennsylvania Senate Republican Caucus, said it includes a lot of benefits for victims.

“This bill eliminates the criminal statute of limitations for conspiracy or solicitation or any of those kinds of things that facilitate those types of things,” she said.

In the future, she said, it allows a civil suit to be filed against individuals who abused a child or a private or public institution involved in conspiring with the attackers to facilitate the abuse and did not report it to law enforcement.

In addition, she said it lowers the standard of proof against governmental organizations in the suits to negligence, as opposed to gross negligence.

“There were a lot of positive changes being lost in the discussion,” Kocher said.

But the changes are not retroactive. They would apply only to cases brought after the bill becomes law.

She said the provision removed from the bill was the part that would have allowed victims and survivors who are not yet 50 years old to sue those who wronged them. The bill, she said, will go forward, meaning it helps victims decades from now.

For example, if a person is 45 years old and they were abused when they were a child, this version of the law would not allow them to sue. However, if the legislation is approved, future victims will have decades to pursue a case.

“We had constitutional concerns,” Kocher said. “We wanted the good portions of the bill that are getting lost and we wanted them to become law quickly. We didn’t want to lose the good portions of the bill to be tied up in a court battle.”

She said the bill now returns to the House, where lawmakers have until the end of the year to consider it. When this session ends, all bills expire and must be reintroduced next year to be considered.

“This bill, this law promises to be a good and effective permanent law of the state,” Kocher said. “It will provide important tools for future prosecutors and victims. We continue to encourage its passage because of the good that it does for victims. (Legislators) need to decide if the good that this bill does is enough for them now. Do you take one step or do you get zero?”

Rep. Rozzi, D-126, of Berks County, questions that logic.

“What they expanded on does nothing for the next 30 years,” he said. “We’re still having lawyers look at it because they’re not sure if institutions are covered up to 50 right now. The way I looked at it originally the only thing they expanded was the expansion on individually. Why not expand it for the individual and the institution?”

Rozzi, a childhood sexual abuse survivor who has advocated for victims’ rights, said he felt compelled to enter public service because of these issues.

“The reason I am doing this work is because people like them are afraid to do their job,” he said.

Rozzi was 13 years old when he was abused by a priest in 1984. He learned later that more than 40 boys from his parochial school had been abused by one particular priest.

If Rozzi’s proposal becomes law, he said he’s not certain he would sue. But if he did, he would give away any settlement money.

“If I did, I would give every single penny of that blood money to a children’s organization where it would benefit the children of the commonwealth,” Rozzi said. “I would not take one penny.”

He charged that outside influences are having an impact on the legislative process.

“When you look at the preamble that they put in there, it definitely, to me, it had the influence of the church and the insurance federation all over it,” Rozzi said. “How can they say it’s not seemed to be influenced by them?”

In the summer, he stood in front of the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia and accused state Sen. Joe Scarnati, R-25, of Brockway, of blocking the measure.

“One of the main problems is Sen. Scarnati, the insidious relationship that he has with Long and Nyquist, who is the lobbyist for the Catholic Conference,” Rozzi said. “There is a tight relationship there. He didn’t listen to his constituents. He didn’t listen to the victims of abuse. He listened to the lobbyists.”

Harrisburg-based Long, Nyquist & Associates is a lobbying firm. Among its clients is the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference. Several of its staff, including Michael S. Long, Todd Nyquist and Tim Nyquist worked for Scarnati. Megan Crompton, the firm’s Vice President, Government Relations, is wife of Drew Cromtpon, Scarnati’s chief of staff and chief counsel.

Scarnati’s office referred comment to Kocher.

“We’re of the firm belief that this is not a Catholic or a non-Catholic issue, that this is a survivors’ issue,” Kocher said. “Any ties or perceived ties, this is much larger and (about) the good that this bill does. This bill is about survivors and the good that this does to help them.”

Victims advocates from various backgrounds questioned why the legislation faced such resistance.

Pennsylvania’s own Commonwealth Victim Advocate, Jennifer Storm, called the parameters “ridiculously arbitrary statute of limitations.”

She said she received calls every day where she must tell victims there’s nothing she can do for them because of these limitations.

“I am begging and imploring the Senate to pass this legislation properly — the way that it was first drafted — to do the right thing,” she said. “It’s time to do the right thing in Pennsylvania.”

Outside of the basilica in the summer, Sister Maureen Paul Turlish of Catholic Whistleblowers expressed a similar sentiment.

“It is outrageous that the Roman Catholic Church of Pennsylvania is opposing legislative reform in HB 1947,” she said. “Child abuse is an epidemic in this country and it’s an epidemic in Pennsylvania. It is outrageous that they are not supporting this bill and, in fact, by not supporting this bill, they are supporting sexual predators.”

Officials at the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference disagree, emphasizing that their initiative is to address the harm, pain and anger caused by childhood sexual abuse.

“The church has repeatedly acknowledged abuse that happened and its role in the ongoing suffering experienced by survivors and their loved ones,” Amy Hill, director of communications for the conference, said. “While recognizing and respecting that every individual must take his or her own personal journey to heal, the church is committed to offering assistance.”

She said it is a matter of finances and parishioners cannot afford the amounts that these settlements would require.

However, she said the victim assistance, be it in the form of therapy, medication, child and travel support and other means, will remain.

“We will provide continuous resources for survivors and their families so they can have access to counseling, addiction treatment, medications and other necessary support services,” Hill said.

John Delaney, a victim of one of the priests whose case was detailed in the 2005 Philadelphia grand jury report, said legislative remedies need to be made to help victims of today.

“Where’s the justice for victims?” he asked. “They say one thing and do another … I’m tired of it. I’m tired of what I have to go through as a victim. All they seem to care about is the money. HB 1947 should be passed to protect past, present and future victims in Pennsylvania instead of making Pennsylvania a safe haven for pedophiles.”

State Sen. John Eichelberger, R-30, of Hollidaysburg, serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee and his district falls within the confines of the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese.

He said the Legislature was not acting on behalf of the Catholic Church, that it was an issue of constitutionality.

“Substitute the word ‘unconstitutional’ with the word ‘illegal,’” he said. “It’s the same thing … I can’t do something wrong to make (Rozzi) feel better going forward.”

Eichelberger said lawmakers are doing what they can.

“We’re all in agreement that this is an unbelievable tragedy for these people,” he said. “We’re legislators, we’re tasked with something. All that we can do is the best we can to help these victims.”

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