Leaders of the Pennsylvania Senate on Monday introduced a bill to extend the amount of time that future victims of child sexual abuse would have to sue or prosecute their attackers, reviving a controversial measure that led to a legislative standoff before it collapsed late last year.
The bill introduced by Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati of Jefferson County seeks to eliminate the criminal statute of limitations for prospective cases of child sexual abuse and would allow future victims to sue their attackers at any age. Currently, victims may sue only for 12 years after their 18th birthday.
Scarnati's bill excluded the one provision that victim advocates and prosecutors have sought for over a decade and that recently led to a pitched legislative battle in Harrisburg: A change in law that would allow victims of past abuse to sue for what happened to them many years ago.
That was the centerpiece of a bill passed by the House last year and that vanished in the Senate at Scarnati's urging amid lobbying by the Catholic Church and insurance industry. Scarnati last year backed a version that would not allow retroactive application of the civil statute of limitations for victims up to the age of 50.
Scarnati said the bill he put forth Monday replicated the one that died after the House declined to act on it. He said he does not support allowing people to sue for decades-old abuse because of concerns it would violate the state Constitution. Church and insurance lobbyists had opposed the bill on similar grounds, while prosecutors and victim advocates believed the courts should decide the mater.
"Clearly, my view and my stance hasn’t changed, because the constitution hasn’t changed," Scarnati said during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that ended with a unanimous vote to move it to the full Senate. Scarnati's co-sponsors are Republican Majority Leader Jake Corman of Centre County and Republican John R. Gordner of Columbia County.
During the committee hearing, Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery), reiterated his own opposition to a more expansive bill.
“I agree with Sen. Scarnati in everything he said," said Leach, top-ranking Democrat on the Republican-controlled Judiciary Committee.
Speaking to reporters afterward, Scarnati said the bill could be voted on final passage as early as this week. But he acknowledged that he had not had any discussions with House leaders about it, signaling the likelihood of another tense standoff between the two chambers over whether the bill should also apply retroactively to victims of decades-old abuse.
Advocates last year waged a fierce battle led by Berks County Democratic Rep. Mark Rozzi, a childhood priest abuse survivor. Rozzi championed the more expansive House bill after an investigative grand jury report into clergy abuse in central Pennsylvania. That bill sailed through the House with key support from House Majority Leader Dave Reed, a Republican.
Rozzi on Monday did not respond to a request for comment, and neither did a spokesman for House Republicans.
Republican Tom Murt of Bucks County, a Catholic who had fought with Rozzi for a bill that would allow retroactive lawsuit rights, said Monday he would push to amend Scarnati's bill, if necessary.
Murt last year actually advocated for a bill that went further than what the House passed: One that would suspend the civil statute for two years so that victims of any age could bring suits during that window of time.
Murt said the Scarnati bill is "an improvement" by expanding such rights for future aubse victims. But it does not do enough: "There are many victims who would not be able to reach for justice," he said.
A state grand jury led by the Attorney General's Office is investigating clergy abuse allegations at multiple Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania.
“I’m not so sure there is compromise on the Constitution, but there are other items we can certainly discuss with the House,” Scarnati said when asked how he would resolve the differences on retroactivity.
“There are many good aspects to this bill. And I think that we need to continue to focus on those," Scarnati said.
"For me it’s about constitutionality. It’s not that I don’t stand with victims, it’s that I stand with the constitution. I detest what these victims suffered or allegedly suffered. Clearly this bill will do much good going forward.
Scarnati endured sharp criticism from victim-advocates last year for thwarting that one provision. In so doing, the Senate helped block the one change to state law that would potentially have allowed a flood of lawsuits against private institutions such as the Catholic Church, whom several grand jury reports have accused of enabling the abuse of hundreds of children at the hands of priests over the past two generations.