Sen. Greenleaf recuses himself from child sex-abuse bill

Sen. Stewart Greenleaf at the hearing on the abuse bill.

Under pressure for an apparent conflict of interest as he guided the fate of a controversial child sex-abuse bill, Sen. Stewart Greenleaf announced Saturday that he had decided to step away entirely from the measure that has pitted victims against the Catholic Church.

The surprise announcement drew praise from supporters who were afraid of reports that Greenleaf was planning to strip the bill of its most contentious provision: language that would let victims sue attackers and institutions for abuse that happened as far back as the 1970s.

It also raised questions about what comes next for the bill, which only last week was the subject of a furious behind-the-scenes effort by GOP leaders, including Greenleaf, to strip the measure of its most potent element. The committee meets again on Monday, but with no stated pledge to vote on the bill or not.

Greenleaf said he made the voluntary decision after learning that an attorney at the firm where he is a partner, Elliott Greenleaf, was currently being paid by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to represent a priest who is a witness in civil suits regarding sexual abuse. The archdiocese is among the most vocal foes of the abuse bill before Greenleaf's committee, having urged parishioners in recent weeks to press lawmakers across Southeastern Pennsylvania to oppose it.

The disclosure by Greenleaf followed reports earlier this month in the Inquirer that in recent years his firm also fought on behalf of a Catholic religious order to prove, unsuccessfully, that a Delaware law expanding child sex-abuse victims' rights was unconstitutional.

"I had no personal or private interest in either of these cases, nor did I know of their existence," Greenleaf said in a prepared statement issued late Saturday afternoon. "I have no conflict of interest in either case."

But perception was enough to convince Greenleaf to no longer handle any aspect of House Bill 1947, a sweeping reform to the state's civil and criminal statutes of limitations that passed the House 180-15 in April and that Gov. Wolf said he would sign. That bill has been the subject of fierce lobbying by opponents and advocates as it headed to Greenleaf's committee, where a vote on whether it moves forward could be just days away.

"Perception and appearance in ethical matters are important - especially public perception of what legislators do in Harrisburg," Greenleaf added. "In order to project a positive perception, I voluntarily will no longer participate in any further proceedings regarding HB 1947, nor will I vote on the bill."

Informed of Greenleaf's decision, Rep. Mark Rozzi, a former clergy abuse victim who was the bill's fiercest champion in the House, applauded him "for doing the right thing."

"It's in the best interests of the House bill, it's in the best interests of the citizens of this commonwealth, and it's in the best interest of sex-abuse victims," Rozzi said.

How this affects the bill politically remains in question. The vice chairman of the Judiciary Committee is attorney general candidate John Rafferty Jr., a Montgomery County Republican whose position on the bill has not been unequivocal. Rafferty has said that he would support the bill in its current form or with amendments.

One of Greenleaf's harshest critics in recent weeks, Delaware child sex-abuse victims' lawyer Thomas Neuberger, also praised the Republican lawmaker for responding to his call to no longer handle the legislation before him and his powerful committee.

"It's a victory for survivors," said Neuberger, who sued the Diocese of Wilmington and related Catholic entities after Delaware's General Assembly passed a measure allowing vastly expanded rights to sue for decades-old abuse.

Earlier this month, Neuberger publicly urged that Greenleaf recuse himself from the matter. Greenleaf refused, saying he had no involvement in the case in which his firm fought in court to prove the new Delaware law unconstitutional soon after it passed in 2007. The parliamentarian of the Senate agreed that Greenleaf had no conflict. As a result, Greenleaf presided over a hearing at which four invited legal minds testified that the bill was unconstitutional, and one argued that it was supported by Pennsylvania law.

"It's an historic event," Neuberger said of Greenleaf's decision to not touch the legislation any further. "It's my understanding that no legislator has ever stepped down from a conflict of interest in the history of the Pennsylvania legislature."

The bill would eliminate the criminal statute of limitations for child sex abuse and extend the civil statute so that people have till the age of 50 to sue for what happened to them as children. The civil statute provision would also be retroactive, meaning people could sue for what happened decades ago.

Last week, word circulated that Greenleaf was planning to strip the bill of retroactivity and recommend that the committee release it in that form. The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania have said they are strongly against this provision.

Marci Hamilton, a victims' attorney and resident senior fellow on child abuse at the University of Pennsylvania, said she viewed Greenleaf's decision as major in determining what comes next for the bill in Harrisburg.

"Taking him out of the mix may well harbor good things," Hamilton said.

John Salveson, the president of the Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse, applauded Greenleaf's decision.

"It's a pretty clear conflict when your firm represents the interests of those who are hiding these priests," Salveson said. "But I'm glad he finally figured it out."

mpanaritis@phillynews.com

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Staff writer Jonathan Lai contributed to this article.