Pa. House, Senate remain in conflict as clock ticks on clergy abuse bill

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, walks through the Pennsylvania Capitol (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, walks through the Pennsylvania Capitol (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Pennsylvania’s Senate has started its last scheduled session week for the year — and all eyes are on a measure that aims to make it easier for victims of child sexual abuse to sue their abusers.

The effort garnered renewed attention this summer after a grand jury probe alleged widespread abuse in Pennsylvania Catholic churches. But disagreement over one provision could make the whole thing fall apart.

Demonstrators lined the hallway outside Senate offices Monday as discussion on the bill resumed after an off-week. They held battery-powered candles and posters of loved ones who they say, as children, fell prey to abusive clergy members.

Late last month, the House passed a version of the measure that would open a two-year window for lawsuits in cases for which the statute of limitations expired.

That retroactivity provision is key for many survivors of abuse and their supporters. But Senate leaders— particularly GOP President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati — oppose it, arguing it’s unconstitutional.

In a heated interaction with reporters, Scarnati said he’s primarily concerned about the House bill because it doesn’t include all the grand jury’s recommendations.

“You have refused to print my press releases,” he said, raising his voice.

However, he also stuck to his guns on the constitutionality issue.

“I know I’ve been the pinata on this issue, but it was unconstitutional two-and-a-half years ago, 10 years ago, and I still believe it’s unconstitutional now,” he said.

Josh Shapiro — the Democratic attorney general who ordered the grand jury investigation — said Scarnati and others are using the inclusion of grand jury recommendations as an excuse, and those measures aren’t controversial.

He supports the retroactivity clause.

“They’re wrong. It’s constitutional. Period,” Shapiro said.

Both the House and Senate agree the bill should get rid of the statute of limitations on child sex abuse cases going forward, and extend the damages victims can get in civil suits against institutions.

Both chambers have only a few scheduled session days remaining for the year.

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