HARRISBURG – Adult survivors of child sex abuse will be watching the state Senate Monday to see if there is going to be a breakthrough on the stalemate over whether to allow survivors to sue organizations that covered up for child predators even if the statute of limitations is expired.
Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, said earlier this month said that the Senate plans to move legislation, including a proposal calling for an amendment to the state Constitution that would allow a two-year window for lawsuits. The Senate has no days scheduled in November after this week.
Meanwhile, in a statement released Friday, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm for the Catholic bishops in the state, signaled that it won’t oppose a proposed amendment to allow lawsuits.
“The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference is neutral on the issue of a constitutional amendment,” said Eric Failing, executive director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference. “To help survivors immediately, Pennsylvania dioceses have created compensation programs administered by credible and independent third parties. To date, they have paid millions to survivors across the commonwealth and other cases are still pending. We have much to atone for, and it’s our hope these settlements help survivors now — rather than have to wait several years.”
The Catholic Conference has been one of the staunchest opponents of efforts to allow victims to sue and Shaun Dougherty, a Johnstown resident, who has been one of the most outspoken survivors lobbying at the Capitol, said he’s not convinced by the group’s statement on Friday.
“I take everything they say with a grain of salt,” he said. “They may say they’re neutral, but I don’t trust them.”
The state House earlier this year approved legislation that would propose amending the state Constitution to open a two-year window for lawsuits even if the statute of limitations is expired. The Senate hasn’t taken up the measure, but Scarnati has indicated he supports it.
The controversy over allowing adult survivors of child sex abuse to sue when their statute of limitations is expired intensified in 2018 when a grand jury revealed that it had found evidence that Catholic bishops across the state had covered up abuse by 300 predator priests over decades. Almost none of the victims in those cases could sue due to the state’s statute of limitations.
But efforts to open a window for lawsuits stalled at the end of the 2018 legislative session when Scarnati refused to hold a vote on legislation that had already passed the state House that would have allowed victims to sue. One of the issues that’s stalled the effort to open a window for lawsuits is concern that changing the statute of limitations retroactively would violate the state Constitution.
State Sen. Wayne Langerholc, R-Cambria County, said that he’s convinced that it would permissible to open the window.
Even so, he’s not completely opposed to the move to amend the Constitution if that’s the compromise that will get enough votes to pass, he said.
“We have to get something done for these victims,” he said.
House Bill 963 would open a two-year window to allow for lawsuits but do so by amending the state Constitution. That process requires votes in two separate legislative sessions, followed by a ballot question placed before the voters statewide. The current two-year legislative session runs 2019-2020, meaning that the amendment would have to pass the General Assembly again in 2021, at the earliest, before voters would get to decide whether to amend the Constitution.
House Bill 962 would change the statute of limitations moving forward so that victims of child abuse would have until the age of 55 to file lawsuits. Under existing law, they must sue by the age of 30, which advocates claim is inadequate because most survivors aren’t willing to come forward with accusations until they are older.
Dougherty said that for victims, it’s tough to know whether the constitutional amendment is the way to go or whether they should push to just try to get the changes passed through normal legislation.
“It’s a tough position to be put in, as a victim,” Dougherty said. “You want the doors of justice opened for you.”
Dougherty noted that even if the Legislature moves to amend the Constitution, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the battle would be over. A move to amend the Constitution to create Victim’s Bill of Rights is now on hold due to a legal challenge from the League of Women Voters and the American Civil Liberties Union, despite voter approval of the proposal.