Pa. legislators abandon bill to extend rights of child sex-abuse victims

| 10/26/16 | Marie Panaritis and Karen Langley | philly.com |

HARRISBURG – A controversial proposal to extend the civil statute of limitations for child sex-abuse victims appeared to collapse Tuesday, after supporters said the House was unlikely to move an amended version of the bill or reintroduce the original measure.

With little chance of its passing, they said, they will try to revive it when the Assembly reconvenes next year.

“The process is over at this point,” said Rep. Mark Rozzi (D., Berks), a clergy-abuse victim who had been the bill’s fiercest advocate.

Both the GOP-controlled House and Senate had supported expanding victims’ rights to sue, but split sharply on whether those rights should be applied retroactively for victims abused decades ago.

The House approved such a provision, but the Senate, after fierce lobbying from the insurance industry and the Catholic Church, removed it from the bill this summer and sent it back to the House.

“The positive aspects of this bill continue to be lost in a discussion of a specific provision,” Jennifer Kocher, spokeswoman for the Senate Republicans, said Tuesday, citing the battle over retroactivity.

Victims’ advocates lamented the changes and lawmakers’ inability to resolve their differences before the legislature’s last voting day for the year.

“All of us want to get the retroactivity piece back and are so infuriated by the absence of justice for victims,” said Cathleen Palm, founder of the Center for Children’s Justice. “But continuing to delay important reforms is denying justice for a whole new class of victims.”

Prompted in part by a grand jury report of widespread clergy abuse in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, the original bill called for giving past victims of child sex-abuse until age 50 to file lawsuits against their abusers, as well as the private institutions that employed or supervised them.

Its April passage in the House by an overwhelming margin marked one of the biggest legislative victories for victims and advocates in more than a decade.

But insurers and the church stepped up their public opposition to the measure, arguing it could lead to crippling court payouts.

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput urged priests to prod parishioners to contact state lawmakers. And critics noted the more than $100 million paid by the Diocese of Wilmington to about 150 clergy-abuse victims after a similar measure became law there.

After a June hearing at which then-Solicitor General Bruce L. Castor Jr. declared retroactively that applying such a law would be unconstitutional, the Senate removed the retroactivity clause, then unanimously passed and sent to the House an amended version that would allow lawsuits by victims only going forward.

Last month, House Majority Leader Dave Reed (R., Indiana) said he expected to ship back to the Senate a version with the same House language the Senate had already rejected, a move that was unlikely to break the stalemate.

In a bid at compromise, Rozzi said, he proposed to Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre) a measure that would have given all past victims just a one-year window to file lawsuits. But he said the Senate leader never responded. (Kocher, the Senate GOP spokeswoman, confirmed that the pair had talked but described their conversation as private.)

So this week, House leaders appear to have abandoned both plans.

“We’re … not looking to ping-pong a bill back and forth,” Reed said during a break from proceedings Tuesday. “We want to get a final product that the Senate can pass and that we can get it to the governor’s desk and will be signed into law.”

Besides extending future victims’ right to sue, the amended Senate version eliminated the criminal statute of limitations so that prosecutors could bring charges at any time for future abuse cases. But it offered less generous rights to future victims seeking to sue institutions.

“We had hoped in the waning days of session that the House would concur with the bill as it stands because of the valuable improvements provided for both the criminal and civil actions that could be taken for victims going forward,” Kocher said in a statement.

Palm and other advocates voiced frustration over the Senate’s refusal to reconsider its stance, especially after newly named Attorney General Bruce Beemer said he believed retroactivity is constitutional.

“It’s disappointing,” said John Salveson, a victim founder of the Foundation to End Child Abuse, an advocacy group. “I just don’t know what it’s going to take to get these legislators to do the right thing.”

Amy Hill, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, said in a statement that the Catholic community was “committed to encouraging healing among survivors and their families.”

But without final resolution on the bill, “we know the debate about statute of limitations reform will continue,” Hill said.

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