Pennsylvania’s Legislature plowed through its final scheduled voting day of 2018 on Wednesday amid a showdown over legislation to respond to a landmark state grand jury report accusing hundreds of Roman Catholic priests of sexually abusing children over decades.
Legislation remained in the Senate, where the Republican majority has thus far opposed a provision recommended by the grand jury and backed by Attorney General Josh Shapiro, Gov. Tom Wolf, the House of Representatives, Senate Democratic leaders and victim advocates.
That provision would give now-adult victims of child sexual abuse a two-year reprieve from time limits in state law that otherwise bar them from suing perpetrators and institutions that covered it up.
It was one of four recommendations made by the grand jury in its Aug. 14 report.
Republican senators met behind closed doors Wednesday before emerging, saying they instead were discussing a measure to give victims a two-year window to sue still-surviving perpetrators, but not institutions, such as the Catholic Church.
Shapiro said that plan was unacceptable and would shield the Catholic Church from being held accountable, “the very institution that enabled this abuse.”
House Majority Leader Dave Reed, backed by a group of now-adult child sexual abuse victims, told reporters that the House would reject the Senate’s plan.
“We will not accept that proposal, we will not accept anything that does not have a clear window to hold (accountable) not just the individual, but the institution who helped the perpetrator commit their crimes for decades upon decades,” Reed said.
Current law bars lawsuits when a victim turns 30. Before 2002, state law required victims to sue within two years of being victimized.
The nearly 900-page state grand jury report said more than 300 Roman Catholic priests had abused at least 1,000 children over the past seven decades in six Pennsylvania dioceses. It also accused senior church officials of systematically covering up complaints. Most cases were between 1970 and 2000.
The grand jury report has shaken the church, spawned investigations in other states and drawn a strong response from Pope Francis.
The Senate’s top Republican, President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, has backed a statewide church-created fund to compensate victims and maintained that it is unconstitutional to retroactively restore the rights of someone to sue. The Catholic Church and for-profit insurers also oppose the restoration of the right to sue.
Individual dioceses already have set up victim compensation funds, said Sen. Don White, R-Indiana.
But Shapiro said a church-created fund lets the Catholic Church define how much money it pays and “is a slap in the face to the victims.”
“It allows them to continue the cover-up, to continue to silence the victims, and it gives the appearance that they’re trying to do something when in fact they’re not,” Shapiro said.
The grand jury’s report has propelled a fresh debate over changing the law in Pennsylvania. Legislation has been simmering since 2016, after a prior grand jury report detailed allegations of the abuse of hundreds of children over decades in the Altoona-Johnstown diocese.
Pennsylvania lawmakers have broadly agreed to eliminate time limits in criminal prosecutions of child sexual abuse, which currently go up to a victim’s age of 50. They also have agreed to raise the time limit, from the victim’s age of 30 to 50, for a future victim to sue.
But an entrenched disagreement over giving now-adult victims another chance to sue has held up the package of changes.
Similar windows to sue have been approved over the years in six other states, according to the Philadelphia-based research organization Child USA. Two — Georgia and Utah — limited lawsuits to perpetrators, and lawsuits there have been relatively non-existent compared to Delaware, California, Minnesota and Hawaii, which extended liability to institutions, Child USA said.
Lawsuits and victims’ compensation funds may deliver money to victims who have suffered for years from the memory of their abuse as a child, although there are crucial differences.
Lawyers who help settle child sexual abuse cases say the courts generally promise a bigger payout and the ability for a victim to confront a perpetrator, while dioceses face the possibility that a judge can order them to divulge records of how they handled child sexual abuse complaints.
As much as 40 percent of the settlements or court awards can go to lawyers’ fees, and the church’s defenders say that motivates civil lawyers to press for lawsuits.
A victims’ compensation fund protects diocesan records from court-ordered scrutiny, but delivers a faster payout to victims.