Window for child sex abuse suits divides negotiators
HARRISBURG (AP) — The Pennsylvania state lawmaker leading a push to give victims of child sexual abuse a way around time limits that prevent them from suing on Friday angrily rejected an alternative approach recently circulated by the top-ranking Senate Republican.
Rep. Mark Rozzi said he had several problems with a document he received Thursday from the office of Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, the biggest being that it did not include a two-year window to allow lawsuits otherwise barred by time limits in state law.
“As far as I’m concerned, negotiations are over. My three words for the Senate are simply this: prepare for war,” Rozzi, D-Berks, said in his Capitol office. “We’re coming.”
A couple hours later his tone had cooled, saying at a news conference there was a chance an agreement could be struck over the weekend.
The House last month voted for a two-year window, but Scarnati has argued retroactive lawsuits would violate the state constitution. The Senate could vote on matter next week, as the current legislative session nears its end.
A state investigative grand jury report issued in August, drawing from secret church files, found hundreds of Roman Catholic priests abused children over seven decades. It recommended a window be established because under current law, victims of child sexual abuse have until age 30 to sue.
Scarnati’s top aide, Drew Crompton, described the document as a way to share information “with a small group of interested parties in order to continue good faith conversations on behalf of Sen. Scarnati.”
The document was first reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Crompton said Scarnati’s proposal of a compensation fund was evidence the Senate leader has “moved off his position.” The outline he sent out Thursday talks of giving victims one year to file a claim with a “tribunal, managed by judges” that would oversee a victims’ compensation fund. The document does not say where the money would come from, how much money would be available or who would be eligible.
The Scarnati document backs a widely supported proposal to eliminate the statute of limitations for criminal prosecutions going forward, and makes other changes recommended by the grand jury.
It would impose more strict requirements for reporting suspected abuse and make clear that nondisclosure agreements may not stop the victims who signed them from reporting their abuse to police. A registry would be established to list perpetrators.
Rozzi, who spoken publicly about his own abuse at the hands of Catholic priest, has become a House leader on the subject. He said he had been in talks with Scarnati over the bill, and on Tuesday Scarnati told him he would send him language.
Rozzi said he supports the idea of a compensation fund along with a two-year window for lawsuits — but not a fund without the window.
He said the fund could end up as a way for the church and others to “buy off these claims super cheap.” Some victims, he said, want the kind of disclosure that a lawsuit could provide, while others prefer the process of compensation through a fund.
Sam Marshall, president of the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania, an industry group, responded favorably to the Scarnati document.
“This seems to be a comprehensive and constitutional approach to eradicating the horrors of child abuse documented in the grand jury report,” Marshall said.
The state’s Catholic dioceses have endorsed the idea of a fund.
At a news conference Friday morning in Norristown to push lawmakers to act in the coming days, Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro insisted that the two-year window should be part of legislation.
“I don’t know how any responsible lawmaker who actually took the time to read this grand jury report could vote against these survivors, could vote against supporting these grand jury reforms,” Shapiro said.
He said the grand jury report had shocked people in the state, and warned state senators not to ignore the grand jury’s recommended changes.