Leaders in Pa. Senate want changes to child sex abuse bill as passed by House

Carolyn Fortney, center, hugs her son Elias, 11, during a press conference in the state Capitol Building on Monday, Sept. 24, 2018, in support of legislation that would change the statute of limitations for child sex crimes. Carolyn is one of five sisters in the Fortney family to suffer from abuse by a priest. Others in the photograph are Judy Deaven, left, whose son Joey Behe was abused by a priest and died of an overdose in 2015; Carolyn's sister Patty Fortney-Julius, i stripped shirt, who was also abused, and the sisters' father, Edward Fortney, right. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)

Carolyn Fortney, center, hugs her son Elias, 11, during a press conference in the state Capitol Building on Monday, Sept. 24, 2018, in support of legislation that would change the statute of limitations for child sex crimes. Carolyn is one of five sisters in the Fortney family to suffer from abuse by a priest. Others in the photograph are Judy Deaven, left, whose son Joey Behe was abused by a priest and died of an overdose in 2015; Carolyn's sister Patty Fortney-Julius, i stripped shirt, who was also abused, and the sisters' father, Edward Fortney, right. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)

On Tuesday, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed a bill that would make it easier for victims of child sexual abuse to hold abusers accountable.

The measure’s fate now rests with the state Senate, whose leaders say they have no intention of passing it without significant changes.

Both chambers agree on the proposal’s basic features.

It would get rid of criminal statute of limitations on all child sex abuse cases and extend the cap for victims to file civil suits against institutions.

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman said he’s concerned, though, that the House version doesn’t include all the recommendations from the recent grand jury report on abuse in the Roman Catholic Church — which also called for stronger reporting requirements and greater clarity on the limits of nondisclosure agreements.

The bill also requires a higher burden of proof for public institutions than private ones. The standard for punishing a public institution that lets an abuser go unreported is “gross negligence” instead of “regular negligence.” It also includes a cap on compensation for victims in public institution cases.

“I think that sets up two classifications of victims,” Corman said. “And if you’re a victim, you don’t care if it’s a private priest or doctor or it’s a teacher. You deserve fair ability to seek compensation or seek justice through this system.”

“We are not going to concur on this bill…but we are committed to getting something that makes sense,” he added.

The House bill also would create a two-year window for statute-limited victims to sue for damages in civil court, even if their cases have already expired.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati has been an adamant opponent of the provision, arguing that it is unconstitutional and could bankrupt churches.

Asked whether his opinion has shifted, he said only that he supports getting compensation for victims, then ignored other questions as he stepped into an elevator.

The Senate has only eight voting days scheduled to finish the bill before the session ends.

If it doesn’t pass in that time-frame, it would need to be reintroduced next year.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.