Vic­tims, lawyers fight over time lim­its for child sex abuse law­suits in Pa. Se­nate

The Morning Call - - LOCAL NEWS - By Mark Scol­foro

HARRISBURG – A leg­isla­tive tug-of-war over al­ter­ing rules for child sex­ual abuse claims that oc­curred too long ago to file law­suits re­sumed Wed­nes­day, with vic­tims and their ad­vo­cates on one side and lawyers for re­li­gious or­ga­ni­za­tions and the state’s in­sur­ance in­dus­try on the other.

The Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee’s in­for­ma­tional hear­ing took a broad look at the le­gal, pro­ce­dural and eth­i­cal is­sues in­volved. There were no votes, and no in­di­ca­tion whether bills stalled in the Se­nate might move ahead any time soon.

Ju­di­ciary Chair­woman Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, said the forum was needed be­cause she is among sev­eral se­na­tors who have joined the com­mit­tee since a sim­i­lar process oc­curred more than three years ago.

“We are not here to­day to de­cide the fate of spe­cific bills be­fore us,“Baker said. Af­ter hear­ing vic­tims’ tes­ti­mony at the end of the five-hour hear­ing, the sen­a­tor said she was too up­set to com­ment to re­porters.

“We have enough, right now, to do some­thing,” said the com­mit­tee’s rank­ing Demo­crat, Sen. Larry Far­nese, of Philadel­phia. “We need to do some­thing.“

A two-year win­dow for oth­er­wise time-barred law­suits is one of four pro­vi­sions rec­om­mended by a grand jury re­port last year on child sex­ual abuse in Ro­man Catholic dio­ce­ses in Penn­syl­va­nia.

Marci Hamil­ton, a Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia pro­fes­sor who leads Child USA, a child abuse and ne­glect think tank, de­scribed Penn­syl­va­nia’s statute of lim­i­ta­tions as an­ti­quated and said retroac­tive win­dows for lit­i­ga­tion can help bring the truth to light.

“You sim­ply don’t know who the hid­den preda­tors are in your school dis­tricts,” Hamil­ton told se­na­tors. “You sim­ply don’t know who the hid­den preda­tors are in many in­sti­tu­tions.“

Ad­min­is­tra­tors for com­pen­sa­tion funds set up a year ago by six Catholic dio­ce­ses, in­clud­ing Al­len­town, said they have paid $65 mil­lion to 384 claimants over the past year. Those fig­ures are sure to rise, as more than 200 let­ters have ar­rived in re­cent days, post­marked be­fore a Sept. 30 dead­line for four of the funds, said co-ad­min­is­tra­tor Camille Biros.

The Al­len­town dio­cese set a Sept. 30 dead­line to sub­mit claims, but has not yet re­leased fig­ures.

The dio­ce­ses have been mak­ing pay­ments in re­turn for as­sur­ances from vic­tims that they will not sue.

Sev­eral women spoke vividly of their vic­tim­iza­tion, and one re­ferred to the ar­rest last week of Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Le­banon, on child pornog­ra­phy pos­ses­sion charges. They urged law­mak­ers to act.

“Open­ing a win­dow does not guar­an­tee that a preda­tor or in­sti­tu­tion will be held li­able. There still is a bur­den of proof that has to be met,” said Jen­nifer Goetz, who said her at­tack by a John­stown pe­di­a­tri­cian in the 1980s was deemed to have been too old to be pros­e­cuted. The Associated Press does not iden­tify vic­tims of sex­ual abuse by name un­less they give per­mis­sion, as Goetz did.

In ad­di­tion to a win­dow to per­mit oth­er­wise time-barred claims, there is also a pro­posal to elim­i­nate the crim­i­nal statute of lim­i­ta­tions for crim­i­nal child sex­ual abuse claims go­ing for­ward. That pro­posal, an­other grand jury rec­om­men­da­tion and far less di­vi­sive than the civil law­suit win­dow, would not be retroac­tive.

Greg Rowe, the state pros­e­cu­tors’ as­so­ci­a­tion’s leg­isla­tive and pol­icy di­rec­tor, said that in gen­eral, crim­i­nal cases can be brought in­volv­ing child sex­ual abuse un­til the vic­tim turns 50. The as­so­ci­a­tion sup­ports elim­i­nat­ing the statute of lim­i­ta­tions for fu­ture child sex­ual abuse crimes.

Sam Mar­shall, pres­i­dent of the In­sur­ance Fed­er­a­tion of Penn­syl­va­nia, said his group is against leg­is­la­tion of­fer­ing a retroac­tive win­dow for law­suits, cit­ing con­sti­tu­tional con­cerns. He said a law that per­mits it would be “a false prom­ise“and pre­dicted it will in­evitably re­sult in pro­tracted lit­i­ga­tion.

Mar­shall ar­gued that it would not be fair to in­sur­ers to cre­ate retroac­tive li­a­bil­ity, be­cause his in­dus­try would not have the abil­ity to retroac­tively price and cre­ate a premium for that li­a­bil­ity.

The Repub­li­can ma­jor­ity in the Se­nate, led by Se­nate Pres­i­dent Pro Tem­pore Joe Scar­nati, R-Jef­fer­son, killed statute of lim­i­ta­tions bills a year ago, in the pre­vi­ous leg­isla­tive ses­sion. The Se­nate has not acted on leg­is­la­tion ap­proved by the House in April that would elim­i­nate the crim­i­nal statute of lim­i­ta­tions for child sex­ual abuse crimes and to be­gin the process of amend­ing the state con­sti­tu­tion to cre­ate a two-year win­dow for civil law­suits.

Scar­nati said re­cently that dio­ce­ses have pro­vided sig­nif­i­cant com­pen­sa­tion to vic­tims with­out mak­ing them re­live their abuse in court or pay at­tor­neys’ 30% fees.

Scar­nati ar­gues that retroac­tively giv­ing adult vic­tims a win­dow to sue is un­con­sti­tu­tional, short of chang­ing the state con­sti­tu­tion. At­tor­ney Gen­eral Josh Shapiro, whose of­fice pro­duced the grand jury re­port, main­tains a win­dow is con­sti­tu­tional and the ques­tion, ul­ti­mately, would be up to Penn­syl­va­nia’s Supreme Court.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.