Pa. Senate approves controversial change in child-abuse law

HARRISBURG — In a victory for the Catholic Church and a rebuke to the House of Representatives, the Senate voted Thursday to change the state’s child-sex abuse laws, but only after removing a contentious provision that would have let victims from as far back as the 1970s sue their attackers and private institutions.With a 49-0 vote, the Republican-led chamber agreed to eliminate the statute of limitation for any criminal charges against child-sex abusers.

But the amended bill it passed had been gutted of language to retroactively extend to age 50 the deadline by which victims could file lawsuits. Prosecutors and victims had sought that provision for more than a decade — and the House had overwhelmingly approved it in April.

It drew fierce opposition from the insurance industry and the church, which said it could unfairly subject parishes and institutions to devastating lawsuits for misconduct from decades past.

The Senate vote came after the few senators who had publicly supported the House version backed away. Instead, they threw their support behind the amended version introduced this week by Senate President Pro Tem Joseph Scarnati, R-Jefferson.

“Is it perfect? No,” said Sen. John C. Rafferty Jr., the Montgomery County Republican and state attorney general candidate who days earlier had opposed changing the bill. But, he said, “It’s a big step in the right direction.”

The only senator who didn’t vote was Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, who recused himself after acknowledging his law firm’s role in clergy sex abuse cases.

Mr. Scarnati’s amendment expanded the House bill to let anyone sue almost any abuser at any age, but it requires lawsuits against private institutions to be filed before a victim turns 50. It 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.

Mr. Scarnati’s amendment requires only that “negligence” be the trigger. Civil actions would also be permitted against anyone who conspired with the attacker to facilitate the abuse or who did not report it to law enforcement.

Whether the retooled bill will become law is unclear. Steve Miskin, spokesman for the Republicans who control the House, said that chamber won’t consider the amended legislation until the fall.

On the Senate floor Thursday, Mr. Rafferty and others praised Mr. Scarnati for what they characterized as a more balanced bill than what passed the House.

Long sought by advocates, the retroactivity clause gained momentum there this year after grand-jury allegations of clergy abuse over decades in the Altoona-Johnstown diocese, and charges against three priests.

“I know this is a very emotional issue for many people — certainly, the victims and survivors who were involved in this,” said Sen. John H. Eichelberger, Jr., an Altoona-area Republican, “but I think we’ve done the best we can.”

In a statement after Thursday’s vote, Sam Marshall, president of the Insurance Federation, praised the amended bill for advancing “the protections for Pennsylvania’s children to be free from the horrors of child abuse, whether in a private or public setting.”

The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference said it would “take a closer look” at the measure but offered no specific reaction to the Senate vote.

But it was a searing defeat for advocates who saw the retroactive right to sue as a way of securing justice after so many years.

“There’s a lot of survivors out there today that feel like their hearts have been ripped out,” said Rep. Mark Rozzi, a Reading Democrat and clergy sex-abuse victim.

Another Catholic lawmaker, who lashed out at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia several weeks ago for urging parishioners to lobby against the House bill, predicted the battle isn’t over.

“I don’t think they’ve heard the last of us here in the House,” said Rep. Nick Miccarelli, a Republican from Delaware County.