5 years after the Philly priest abuse scandal, Pa. is still arguing over statutes of limitations

The Pa. House will again consider amending the statute of limitations for child sex abuse survivors. The Catholic Church has some objections.

This post has been updated.

On Monday, the Pennsylvania House will return to session, and arguments will pick up again over one controversial bill that could drastically alter the way sexual abuse is handled in Pennsylvania courts ― that is, if one of its supporters doesn’t intentionally kill it for lacking comprehension.

HB 1947, introduced by Rep. Ronald Marsico, R – Dauphin, would eliminate the current statute of limitations on criminal cases for child sexual abuse. It would also expand the statute of limitations on civil cases, allowing survivors more time to bring lawsuits. As a refresher, a statute of limitations is a legal time limit, after which a person can no longer bring a suit against someone they say committed a crime against them.

A minor in Pennsylvania who has been abused currently has 12 years after the time they turn 18 to bring any civil action; HB 1947 would amend that number to 32 years post-crime, allowing them until their 50th birthday to file a civil suit. The House and Senate generally support that, as well as eliminating the criminal statute. It’s one amendment to the bill that made everything more complicated during the last session, and in the wake of revelations of abuse in the Catholic Church across Pennsylvania, it may not come as a surprise that it, too, had something to say about the bill.

How we got here

When the House was still considering HB 1947 back in the spring, Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, introduced a new, controversial element ― an amendment that would allow survivors whose statutes of limitations had already expired to bring retroactive civil lawsuits, for claims dating back to the ‘70s. Although the House demonstrated its clear support for the bill, including the amendment, by passing it 150-18, things got stickier when the bill reached the Senate.

The Senate judiciary committee held a hearing on June 13 to investigate the constitutionality of that amendment. Statutes of limitations are intended to ward off issues that arise as years pass after the alleged crime happened. For example, it becomes increasingly difficult over time to find evidence to mount a defense for why you didn’t rob someone. If statutes of limitations are going to hold any water, laws that could challenge or nullify them in any way have to be carefully vetted.

Somewhat predictably, the witnesses who testified during the hearing established no single consensus. Their arguments centered on whether the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has established a precedent on this specific type of action: retroactive civil lawsuits for sexual abuse. Pennsylvania Solicitor General Bruce Castor testified in favor of striking Rozzi’s amendment from the bill, citing past cases that the court has ruled on regarding retroactivity on statutes of limitations. But Marci Hamilton, a statute of limitations expert and co-counsel on several abuse claims against the Catholic Church, argued in defense of the amendment that the cases the opposing witnesses referred to are not specific enough to set a precedent for Rozzi’s amendment. Then-Attorney General Kathleen Kane urged the committee to pass the bill with the amendment and leave constitutionality concerns to the courts. On Sept. 21, newly appointed Attorney General Bruce Beemer said he doesn’t believe the bill violates the constitution and that he’ll draft a formal opinion should lawmakers ask.

By this time, the dialogue had spread beyond the pending Senate action: two parties with vested interest are the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the Insurance Federation of Philadelphia. Various representatives felt some retroactive heat for their votes in the House: Rep. Nick Miccarelli, R – Delaware, told NPR in June that he was called out in his church’s bulletin for having voted for the bill, even though he said no church leaders had expressed their opposition to him before the vote.

“It was under the headline, ‘just so you’re aware,’” Miccarelli said of the bulletin’s mention of his vote.

Specifically, the issue raised by the Catholic Conference and the Insurance Federation was about the potential retroactive provision, and how it could affect parishes (as well as rope the Insurance Federation into possibly shouldering some hefty payouts.) It did not protest the elimination or expansion of criminal and civil statutes of limitations.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia spent $1.6 million in abuse-related expenses in a single fiscal year from 2010 to 2011. Catholic Conference spokesperson Amy Hill told Billy Penn that the Conference has spent $16.6 million on counseling and other survivor assistance services since roughly 2002.

“We can all agree that anyone involved with the sexual abuse of a child should be severely punished by the law,” Hill said via email. But, she added, “we have long been concerned about how the retroactive measure will conflict with the Pennsylvania Constitution.”

But the committee and hearing themselves were also tinged with some controversy. The original committee chairman, Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R – Montgomery, stepped down after the Inquirer reported that his law firm was representing the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in a case challenging a sexual abuse-related civil lawsuit. Sen. Rafferty, R- Montgomery, replaced him as chairman.

After the hearing, Sen. Joe Scarnati, R – Jefferson, successfully pushed to strike the amendment in the judiciary committee.

“Senator Scarnati is a piece of shit,” Rozzi said. “He is bought and paid for by the Catholic Church.”

He referred to Scarnati’s ties to Long, Nyquist & Associates, the lobbying firm representing the Catholic Church. Co-founder Todd Nyquist was formerly Scarnati’s chief of staff; The senator’s current chief of staff, Drew Crompton, is married to Long and Nyquist’s VP of Government Relations, and associate Tim Nyquist also worked under Scarnati.

Scarnati spokesperson Katie Eckhart said the senator’s reasons for removing the amendment were simpler than that.

“His concerns were with the constitutionally of the provision, given that several respected attorneys voiced concerns with the provision,” Eckart told Billy Penn via email.

After Scarnati’s removal of Rozzi’s amendment passed, the Senate passed that version. That was June 30.

What’s coming up next

The Senate-amended HB 1947 will come up for a second vote in the House in the upcoming session, and Rozzi is ready. He aims to reinstate the amendment, and to block any attempt to pass the bill without it.

“We’re going to take care of past and future victims or we’re not going to do it at all,” he said. “If we don’t do it now it won’t ever happen.”

And he means it ― if the House tries to pass the bill without a retroactive provision, Rozzi has a filibuster planned to kill it. His reading material on the floor? The reports released under Kane from the Altoona-Johnstown grand jury, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and others, which detail graphic accounts of abuse by Catholic priests and bishops. If the House passes the bill with the amendment this time around, Rozzi predicts that the Senate leadership will let it die without calling up a vote before the session ends. But that’s not an outcome he can be certain of.

The legislative session will run from Sept. 19 until Nov. 15, and if HB 1947 isn’t passed by then, it will be a dead bill. Then it’ll be back to square one for the sponsors, and for Rozzi.

“I have no problem calling anybody out ― Democrat or Republican, representative or senator,” Rozzi said. “If you’re not standing with victims, you’re standing with pedophiles to protect them and the system. It’s that simple for us.”

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