HARRISBURG, Pa. (ChurchMilitant.com) - A Pennsylvania senate committee is set to scrap a provision within proposed reforms to the current child sex abuse statute of limitations that would apply the amendments retroactively.
According to two sources in the legislative process, the Republican-controlled state senate Judiciary Committee is preparing to remove, potentially as soon as this week, the controversial clause in House Bill 1947 (HB 1947) that allows alleged child sex abuse victims to file lawsuits over decades-old molestations, amid criticism from the Pennsylvania Catholic Church and local businesses.
In a letter distributed to parishes earlier this month, Philadelphia archbishop Charles Chaput outlined the issues with the proposed legislation, which he described as posing "serious dangers" for local parishes and a "clear attack on the Church."
"All of us are rightly angered by the crime of sexual abuse," the archbishop affirmed in the June 5 letter. "Over the past decade the Church has worked very hard to support survivors in their healing, to protect our children and to root this crime out of Church life. But HB 1947 and bills like it are destructive legislation being advanced as a good solution."
"HB 1947 is retroactive for private and religious entities, but not retroactive for public institutions," he revealed. "It places very low caps on damages for sexual abuse in public schools in the future. And it makes it hard for abuse victims to sue public institutions going forward."
"Meanwhile, private and religious entities face unlimited liability for exactly the same evil actions," he clarified, "and not just going forward, but also in the past."
As a result, according to the prelate, the proposed legislation "targets innocent Catholic parishes and families ... who will bear the financial burden of crimes committed by bad individuals in the past, along with the heavy penalties that always result from these bad bills."
The clause had been hailed by victims' advocacy organizations, particularly in light of a state grand jury report revealing a decades-long systematic cover-up of abusive homosexual priests perpetrated by two former bishops of the Altoona-Johnstown diocese in western Pennsylvania, as nearly none of the priests implicated can be charged owing to the statute of limitations.
The proposed alternative from GOP leaders to the retroactive provision would permit older abuse victims to sue under the terms of "fraudulent concealment," which would require that evidence of a cover-up be presented in order for the charges to be filed.
This substitute measure has since received flack from victim advocates, including Prof. Marci Hamilton of the University of Pennsylvania, who has previously represented clerical abuse victims. "It's very clever," she conceded, going on to assert that the proposed alternative demonstrates the GOP committee members' "need for some kind of cover, that it is no longer acceptable to do nothing."
"But what they are doing," she remarked, "is the equivalent of nothing."
Democrat representative Mark Rozzi, an abuse victim himself, accused the senate committee of engaging in the same sort of secrecy employed by the Pennsylvania Church hierarchy, as revealed in the March grand jury report. "At what point does the secrecy end?" he asked.
Pushing the importance of the current proposed legislation, Rozzi maintained that "most people cannot really wrap their minds around the issue of child sex abuse, until they have personally met with victims, or read their stories, or in the worst case, have suffered the same fate."
"Only then," he concluded, "can one come to the clear understanding that statute of limitations laws are arbitrary and inherently unfair as they apply to child sex abuse. ... At the end of the day, what is clear to any right-minded person is that this committee should err on the side of victims. For once, vote House Bill 1947 as is without amendments and get this bill to the floor for a Senate vote."
Both the Republican and Democrat lead representatives for the committee declined to discuss the matter.