Senate passes long-sought lawsuit reforms for clergy sexual abuse victims

By: - November 20, 2019 10:01 pm

Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, was abused by a priest as a child and has been at the forefront of the PA General Assembly’s attempts to adjust laws for victims of childhood sexual abuse (Capital-Star photo).

Concluding more than three years of fervent and emotional activism, the state Senate gave its approval late Wednesday to package of bills that would give childhood victims of sexual abuse more time to sue and press criminal charges against their abusers.

Survivors and their advocates hailed the action by the Pennsylvania state Senate as a partial victory Wednesday night, though they lamented the fact that it may be years before they can take advantage of a provision allowing them to bring decades-old cases to court.

“What we did here tonight is monumental,” said Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, a childhood victim of clergy abuse who has led the reform effort in the Capitol. “It’s been a long time coming but we can finally move victims on a path to justice.”

The legislation the Senate approved Wednesday implements four recommendations included in a 2018 grand jury report released by Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office that that uncovered decades of abuse and coverup by thousands of priests in six of Pennsylvania’s Roman Catholic dioceses.

That report expanded a 2016 probe into clergy abuse in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, which ignited the statute of limitations reform movement in the Commonwealth.

The House has already approved the core bills and Wolf has pledged his signature, pending some final votes. The legislation would: 

  • Abolish Pennsylvania’s criminal statute of limitations on childhood sexual abuse and extend the timeline victims have to file civil action against their abusers.
  • Amend the Pennsylvania constitution to create a two-year window in which victims can file civil charges in old cases
  • Clarify penalties for failure to report child abuse
  • Make conversations with law enforcement agents exempt from non-disclosure agreements.

The Senate debated the reform bills for more than an hour during a late session in the Capitol on Wednesday night, approving one significant change to Rozzi’s bill, which returns to the House for further action. 

The amendment sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, extends the bills’ provisions to victims up to the age of 23. Baker said this would protect victims of sexual assault on college campuses.

“This age range is a vulnerable population,” Baker said, adding that many sexual assaults on campus assaults go unreported. ”In setting out to do the right thing for victims, we must not be limited in our determination of who qualifies.”

Baker’s amendment passed unanimously. 

But the Senate’s Republican majority, including newly declared independent Sen. John Yudichak, of Luzerne County, voted against amendments sponsored by  Democratic Sens. Katie Muth, of Montgomery County, and Tim Kearney, of Delaware County, that would have eliminated statute of limitations for sexual abuse victims of all ages. 

The Democrats’ amendments also would have added the two-year civil window to state statute — a proposal that Senate Republican leaders rejected last year.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, argued that the two-year window for civil cases was unconstitutional. The proposal also faced opposition from the powerful insurance lobby and the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, which declared itself neutral on this year’s reform package.

Survivors and advocates were outraged by Scarnati’s decision, in Oct. 2018, not to let the Senate vote on a version of the reform bill.

Some of them watched Wednesday’s proceedings from a balcony in the Senate chamber.

“This institution failed you,” Sen. Wayne Langerholc, R-Cambria, told victims from the floor. “But not today… we’re here to do the right thing.”

Scarnati and other Senate GOP leaders say the constitutional amendment included in this year’s package will inoculate them against  legal challenges brought by insurers and other entities who will be on the hook for victims’ legal settlements. 

But survivors of sexual abuse say it’s a stall tactic. Insurers and others who want to block lawsuits will still challenge the window in court, they argue, and lawmakers will only prolong the inevitable legal battle by pursuing a constitutional amendment.

The General Assembly must approve amendments in two consecutive legislative sessions before voters can ratify them at the ballot box. That means the earliest this amendment could take effect, if approved, is 2021. An amendment does not require Wolf’s signature. 

Senate Democrats who debated the bill on Wednesday said they were disappointed that they could not deliver a quicker remedy to victims. But many said that a slow path to justice was better than none at all. 

“This sends a bad signal to victims.. That we have forgotten them and leaving them in the cold for at least three years,” said Kearney said. “This bill is not perfect… but we must act.”

Victims who want to face their abusers in court say that they want to start the grueling action sooner rather than later. In the time it will take to amend the constitution, they say, Catholic dioceses could tempt more clergy abuse victims into private settlements through victim compensation funds.

Catholic dioceses in the state have established these private reparation programs since the Grand Jury report was published in 2018. They offer victims monetary settlements on the condition that they won’t bring the church to court. 

Victim compensation funds established by five Pennsylvania dioceses have already paid out In more than $53 million to 278 eligible clergy abuse victims who filed claims, according to testimony fund administrators submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee in October. 

That number could grow, as administrators continue to process the large volume of applications they received in the two months leading up to the Sept. 30 deadline for victims to file claims. 

Some clergy abuse victims declined to claim or accept settlements, saying their abusers would face greater accountability before a judge. 

But now that victims must wait for the constitution to be amended before they get their day in court, advocates fear they may be more inclined to take private settlements that preclude their legal options.

The Catholic Conference’s communications director, Al Gnoza, said Wednesday that it would be up to individual dioceses to open their compensation funds to a new round of claims. 

But the organization still sees the private reparations as the quickest path to justice for survivors, who could endure lengthy legal battles if they bring their predators to court.

“We have much to atone for, and it’s our hope these settlements help survivors now — rather than have to wait several years,” Catholic Conference executive director Eric Failing said in a statement.

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.