Pa. Senate committee votes to alter controversial child sex-abuse law

HARRISBURG - With four Philadelphia-area lawmakers dissenting, a Senate committee voted Tuesday to remove the most controversial provision of a bill that would let child sex-abuse victims sue their attackers.

By a 9-4 vote, the Judiciary Committee passed an amendment barring the law from being applied retroactively, which would have enabled lawsuits by victims abused as far back as the 1970s.

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State Rep. Mark Rozzi , the bill's chief backer in the House and himself a victim of clergy sex abuse, said he was deeply disappointed by the Senate committee's action. JOSEPH KACZMAREK / File

The vote was a victory for opponents who warned that the measure would lead to a flood of crippling lawsuits against the Catholic Church and other private institutions.

A majority of committee members said they were eliminating a provision they believed violated the state constitution.

"For me, it boils down to the constitutional issue," said Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati (R., Jefferson), who introduced the amendment but said little during the meeting and had previously declined to declare a position on the measure.

Among those opposing the move was the Republican whom Scarnati has endorsed for attorney general, Sen. John Rafferty Jr. of Montgomery County.

Declaring, "I am Catholic," Rafferty called "abhorrent and disgusting" the clergy sex-abuse and church cover-ups outlined in grand jury reports in Pennsylvania over the last decade. He also said he saw no constitutionality issues with the provision.

"I support what the House sent over," Rafferty said, referring to the House bill that passed by a 180-15 vote in April.

He presided over the hearing as vice chairman after the committee chairman, Stewart Greenleaf (R., Montgomery), recused himself because his law firm had once represented a religious order fighting a similar law in Delaware and now represents a Philadelphia priest as a witness in a sex-abuse lawsuit.

Greenleaf had said he did not play a role in either case but recused himself to maintain "a positive perception."

Rafferty's vote against the amendment was joined by three Philadelphia Democrats on the committee: Art Haywood, Larry Farnese, and John Sabatina Jr.

Haywood said he would consider even more expansive language for past lawsuits - a one- or two-year window for anyone to file civil lawsuits for past abuse. The current House bill requires plaintiffs to file suits by age 50.

But the majority who voted to eliminate the provision, including Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery), said lawsuits for past abuse appeared to be unconstitutional.

"This has been a very difficult issue for me," said Leach, a lawyer and committee minority chairman. "I really want to keep retroactivity in there. I just don't feel I can."

Other senators who identified themselves as non-attorneys said they reached the same conclusion after a hearing two weeks ago. At that proceeding, four experts, including Solicitor General Bruce L. Castor Jr. and two witnesses representing the Catholic Church and the insurance industry, declared the provision unlawful.

The amended bill now heads to the Senate floor, where Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre) has said he wants to move it "expeditiously, most likely this week."

Still intact is the plan to extend to age 50 the civil statute of limitations for future victims, and to abolish the criminal statute of limitations so that a future victim can pursue prosecution at any age.

Scarnati's amendment would allow anyone to sue almost any abuser at any age, but require lawsuits against private institutions to be filed before a victim turns 50. The amendment also makes it easier for child sex-abuse victims to sue public institutions. The House bill would have allowed such lawsuits only in cases of gross negligence. Scarnati's amendment requires only that "negligence" be the trigger.

But those provisions won't apply to past victims, only to those abused after the bill is enacted.

"Going forward, even after people are past age 50, they will be able to have recourse against individual defendants," said Patrick Cawley, counsel to the Judiciary Committee. "Not just the attackers, but anyone who conspired with the attacker to facilitate that abuse, and also against anyone who was aware that the abuse was going on and did not report it to law enforcement."

The vote was a victory for the bill's critics, including Archdiocese of Philadelphia priests and officials who for weeks urged parishioners to contact lawmakers to express opposition.

"I can't say yet what it means for us," Catholic Conference spokeswoman Amy Hill said in a statement Tuesday. "No matter the final resolution with the legislation, the Catholic Church will keep its sincere commitment to the emotional and spiritual well-being of individuals who have been impacted by the crime of childhood sexual abuse, no matter how long ago the crime was committed."

The bill's most ardent backer in the House, Mark Rozzi (D. Berks), didn't hide his disappointment. He called Scarnati a "hit man" captive to powerful interests opposed to the bill.

"He was basically the hired hit man for the Catholic Church to come in here and kill this bill," said Rozzi, himself a clergy sex-abuse victim, who said he planned to sue after being raped as a child by a Catholic priest in Berks County.

Victim advocates have vowed to push for restoring the retroactivity provision. Gov. Wolf had said he would sign the original bill.

The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association and several high-profile prosecutors have supported retroactivity for years.

Rafferty's Democratic opponent in the state attorney general's race, Montgomery County Commissioners Chairman Josh Shapiro, criticized the committee vote. "Victims of childhood sexual abuse have been silenced by too many for too long, and it must stop," he said.

mpanaritis@phillynews.com610-313-8117@panaritism

Staff writer Angela Couloumbis contributed to this article.

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