As he prepares to convene a hearing Monday that could shape the fate of a controversial measure to let Pennsylvania child-sex abuse victims sue over decades-old attacks, Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R., Montgomery) has declined to publicly take a position on the bill.

But the law firm that bears his name has not always been so reserved.

In 2008, records show, lawyers for the firm, Elliott Greenleaf, were among advocates who unsuccessfully argued that a similar proposal under consideration in Delaware was unconstitutional. Firm lawyers at the time represented Norbertine Fathers Inc., a Catholic order sued by abuse victims.

Greenleaf didn't personally handle the suit - his namesake firm has about 50 lawyers in Pennsylvania and Delaware - and there's no record indicating the extent of his role.

But the case adds another subtext as the Senate Judiciary Committee chaired by Greenleaf gathers Monday to weigh the constitutionality of the similar bill in Pennsylvania, one staunchly opposed by the Catholic church. Supporters of the measure, approved in the House by a wide margin in April, have predicted that the Senate will use the constitutionality question to dilute or defeat the bill.

Among the expected witnesses is Solicitor General Bruce L. Castor Jr., a former partner at Greenleaf's firm, who Capitol sources say plans to testify that the legislation would be unconstitutional.

On Saturday, a Delaware lawyer who has represented many clergy-sex abuse victims called for Greenleaf to recuse himself from the debate.

"Because of his conflict of interest," Thomas Neuberger said in a news release, "Chairperson Greenleaf should have stepped down and recused himself from all involvement in [House Bill] 1947. We demand that he do so on Monday."

Greenleaf did not respond Sunday to a request for comment. On Friday, his office declined to answer questions from the Inquirer about the alleged conflict.

The Pennsylvania bill would eliminate the criminal statute of limitations so abusers could be prosecuted at any time. And it would extend from age 30 to age 50 the deadline by which child victims can sue their abusers or the institutions that employed or supervised them.

But the most contentious aspect is the civil statute's retroactive component: Victims could file lawsuits for abuse that occurred as far back as the 1970s.

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput and the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference have argued that such a law could financially devastate parishes and harm worshipers who had nothing to do with abuse by former priests or the supervisors who helped conceal it from the public.

They also argue, as the church has in other states that passed or considered such measures, that it would violate the state constitution by retroactively applying a law.

Chaput also contends that the measure excludes public institutions from the retroactivity clause.

Those arguments failed in Delaware.

There, Kenneth Whitwell, a Navy officer, had alleged that a Norbertine priest, the Rev. Edward Smith, had abused him for nearly three years at Archmere Academy.

Whitwell filed suit a month after Delaware's General Assembly and its governor enacted a July 2007 law allowing the retroactive filing of civil claims for child sex abuse.

On Jan. 18, 2008, Elliott Greenleaf lawyer William M. Kelleher (who has since left the firm) argued in court that the Child Victims Act violated the state constitution, according to documents filed with the case.

Judge Robert B. Young ruled against the Norbertines, finding the law constitutional. The Delaware Supreme Court eventually upheld such a finding.

The law prompted a flood of victim lawsuits, which resulted in the Diocese of Wilmington and several religious orders paying more than $100 million to settle claims with about 150 people.

Church officials have warned of a similar outcome in Pennsylvania. Last weekend, priests across the five-county Archdiocese of Philadelphia roused parishioners at Mass or in church bulletins and fliers to contact lawmakers to express opposition to the bill.

Supporters of the measure planned to hold two rallies Monday, one at 8 a.m. and one at noon at the Capitol, with the Judiciary Committee hearing being held at 10 a.m.

The House passed the measure, 180-15, in April, weeks after grand jury reports issued by Attorney General Kathleen Kane exposed decades of widespread clergy abuse and alleged cover-ups in Altoona-Johnstown diocese.

The House bill, whose sponsor was clergy abuse victim and Rep. Mark Rozzi (D., Berks), also has the backing of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.

Gov. Wolf has said he would sign the Rozzi bill and reiterated his support in a letter published in Monday's Inquirer. There is no dollar amount or time limit that can, or should, be placed on holding those accountable who prey on those who are vulnerable and defenseless."

"The legislation provides more victims a voice and will help hold accountable in civil court those who committed these acts or who have allowed these acts to be committed," said Greg Rowe, an assistant Philadelphia prosecutor who is legislative liaison for the state group. "It will help to hold perpetrators of sexual assaults accountable and allow many more victims their day in court."

610-313-8117

@Panaritism