HARRISBURG — The emotionally charged debate in the state Capitol over a bill to help victims of alleged clergy sex abuse has officially become a campaign issue.
Democrats on Wednesday will begin airing the first television ad knocking moderate Republican senators from the Philadelphia suburbs — several facing tough reelection battles — for the GOP-controlled chamber's failure last week to vote on a measure endorsed by Gov. Wolf, top law enforcement officials, the House of Representatives, and victim advocates.
Among other changes, the legislation would have temporarily allowed older victims of clergy abuse to sue their alleged abusers and the institutions that may have covered up the crimes.
"They call it a window to justice," a woman's voice intones on the ad, paid for by the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, the election arm of Senate Democrats. "But Republicans in the Senate? They just walked away. No vote. No debate. No justice."
"If Senate Republicans won't stand with victims, how can we expect them to vote for us?" the woman asks, urging voters to "change the Senate" by voting for Democrats.
The ad's photo array singles out eight senators, including five from the Philadelphia suburbs: Sens. Thomas McGarrigle (R., Delaware); Tommy Tomlinson (R., Bucks); John Rafferty (R., Montgomery); Bob Mensch (R., Montgomery); and Stewart Greenleaf (R., Montgomery).
It also takes aim at Sen. Pat Browne, a Republican from the Lehigh Valley, as well as the Senate's top two leaders: Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) and Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre).
Scarnati has become the face of opposition in the capital to opening a so-called two-year window in the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse claims, which currently bars civil suits by victims who are over 30. He and a number of other Republicans say a window would have violated the remedies clause of the state Constitution, which has been interpreted by some legal scholars as prohibiting even a temporary chance for people to bring otherwise time-barred legal claims.
But with the exception of Greenleaf, Republican senators from the Philadelphia suburbs — including McGarrigle, Tomlinson and Mensch — have broken with party leaders to publicly state their support for a window in recent weeks. In fact, landing their support was considered critical for victims and their advocates who were pushing for a window.
Rafferty has said for years that he believes a two-year window is the best remedy for child sexual-abuse victims who are too old under the statute to sue.
Even so, the Senate left the Capitol last week after private talks on a window collapsed. It was the last scheduled voting day of the legislature's two-year session. Any legislation that doesn't get approved before the session ends on Nov. 30 must be reintroduced — and start the legislative approval process from scratch — when the new session begins next year.
In a statement Tuesday, Scarnati, who heads the Senate Republican campaign committee, said he found it "curious" that Republican senators who support a window were being targeted.
"I have seen a lot of campaigns over my years but this might be a first — calling out an opponent for taking a position that the other side actually agrees with," Scarnati wrote. "This reinforces my belief that for Democrats, this issue is more about winning campaigns than true concern for the victims of child sexual abuse."
The new ad is landing at a politically vulnerable time for legislators in the southeastern part of the state.
Rafferty, McGarrigle, Tomlinson, and Mensch are all running for reelection, facing tough races in a highly charged election year that some pundits believe could be a wave year for Democrats. (Greenleaf is retiring, but his son, who shares his name, is running for the seat.)
Democrats in Pennsylvania have zeroed in on the Philadelphia suburbs, believing districts there hold the best chance for picking up seats in the Senate. Republicans in the chamber not only hold a majority, but up until recently a super-majority — meaning they had enough votes to overturn a veto by the governor.
Republican Senate leaders, too, are in highly competitive races. Corman is fielding a challenge from Democrat Ezra Nanes, who has been hammering Corman on the issue for weeks. Corman has refused to publicly state his position on a window, and during last week's voting session, rebuffed reporters who tried to ask him. The ad will run on digital platforms in Corman's district, but not on television.
It will air on TV in Browne's district, however. Browne is being challenged by Democrat Mark Pinsley, and the two men have been locked in a fierce race that has included the senator recently pulling a campaign ad that erroneously claimed that Pinsley had failed to pay taxes on his business. Pinsley has sued Browne and his campaign for defamation.