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Church Abuse Bill In Limbo On Lawmakers' Final Voting Day

Jacqueline Larma
Patty Fortney, right, and her sister Carolyn Fortney, Harrisburg-area clergy abuse victims, support each other during a news conference held by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

Pennsylvania's Legislature started its final scheduled voting day in 2018 Wednesday with no resolution to legislation responding to a state grand jury report accusing hundreds of Roman Catholic priests of sexually abusing children over decades.

Legislation is in the Senate, where the Republican majority has thus far opposed a provision recommended by the grand jury and backed by Attorney General Josh Shapiro, Gov. Tom Wolf, the House of Representatives, Senate Democratic leaders and victim advocates.

That provision would give now-adult victims of child sexual abuse a two-year reprieve from time limits in state law that otherwise bar them from suing perpetrators and institutions that covered it up.

It was one of four recommendations made by the grand jury in its Aug. 14 report.

Current law bars lawsuits when a victim turns 30. Before 2002, state law required victims to sue within two years of being victimized.

Republican senators were meeting behind closed doors Wednesday.

In Jefferson County, the home of Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, a former priest in the Erie Diocese admitted in court Wednesday he sexually abused children, and pleaded guilty to corruption of minors and child endangerment.

Shapiro, who went in person to the guilty plea by the Rev. David Lee Poulson, called on the Senate to approve the grand jury's recommendations, including the two-year reprieve.

"The Senate of Pennsylvania and Sen. Scarnati, in particular, has a choice to make," Shapiro told reporters at the courthouse. "And they have just hours left to make that choice. Will they stand with survivors or instead will they stand in the corner with the lobbyists for the Catholic Church and the insurance industry who are working very hard against these reforms?"

Scarnati has instead backed a church-created fund to compensate victims, although his fellow Republican senators appear somewhat split.

The nearly 900-page state grand jury report said more than 300 Roman Catholic priests had abused at least 1,000 children over the past seven decades in six Pennsylvania dioceses. It also accused senior church officials of systematically covering up complaints.

The grand jury's report has propelled a fresh debate over changing the law in Pennsylvania. Legislation has been simmering since 2016, after a prior grand jury report detailed allegations of the abuse of hundreds of children over decades in the Altoona-Johnstown diocese.

Pennsylvania lawmakers have broadly agreed to eliminate time limits in criminal prosecutions of child sexual abuse, which currently go up to a victim's age of 50. They also have agreed to raise the time limit, from the victim's age of 30 to 50, for a future victim to sue.

But an entrenched disagreement over giving now-adult victims another chance to sue has held up passage of a package of changes to the law.

Similar windows have been approved over the years in several other states.

Both civil lawsuits and victims' compensation funds may deliver money to victims who have suffered for years from the memory of their abuse as a child, although there are crucial differences.

Lawyers who help settle child sexual abuse cases say the courts generally promise a bigger payout and the ability for a victim to confront a perpetrator, while dioceses face the possibility that a judge can order them to divulge records of how they handled child sexual abuse complaints.

As much as 40 percent of the settlements or court awards can go to lawyers' fees, and the church's defenders say that motivates civil lawyers to press for lawsuits.

A victims' compensation fund protects diocesan records from court-ordered scrutiny but delivers a faster payout to victims.