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Pa. Senate: Swamp creatures or saviors of clergy abuse victims? | Maria Panaritis

The Catholic Church in Pennsylvania does not want many clergy abuse victims to sue. The House of Representatives does. Justice for victims rests now with a great friend of the church – the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania Senate.

Kelly Williams was among scores of child sexual abuse victim advocates to march ahead of a vote Monday in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives
Kelly Williams was among scores of child sexual abuse victim advocates to march ahead of a vote Monday in the Pennsylvania House of RepresentativesRead moreSTEVE MELLON / Post-Gazette

HARRISBURG — The gauntlet was thrown at 4:27 p.m. Monday onto the floor of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

It happened as Attorney General Josh Shapiro sat high above the House, his chief clergy-abuse prosecutor, Daniel Dye, there with him amid several rows of victims of child sexual abuse in the gallery at the state Capitol, all looking down at the lawmakers below.

By a 171-23 vote, House members backed legislative language that the Catholic Church and the insurance industry have spent years fighting to keep from becoming law: They approved an amendment to a bill that would suspend the civil statute of limitations for child sexual abuse for two full years.

It would allow lawsuits whether you were abused by a priest or a gym teacher in a public school. Whether you were abused 50 years ago or 20. It would give you justice.

This had never happened before in this state.

This was historic. And the only way it becomes law is if the Republicans who control the Senate, and the rank-and-file below them, show that they are anything but feckless and captive to the powerful lobbyists who take marching orders from unrepentant bishops and unconcerned underwriters.

I'm not holding my breath.

I'm holding my breath.

If members of Pennsylvania's Senate want a legacy they can be proud of, they should think long and hard about what choice they are about to make.

Successive grand jury investigations, starting with a report released in 2005 by Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham into the Philadelphia Archdiocese's horrors, and the tome of toxicity across six other dioceses in a report released last month by Shapiro, should leave no doubt about the right path.

The last time a comparable statute of limitations measure came this close, a more conservative one in 2016, the House sent it to the Senate. And there, like the swamp creatures that incumbents tend to resemble the more they collect electoral power, the Republicans who control the Senate killed it.

If the House approves the bill on Tuesday, as is expected, senators will have eight days to change their minds this time around.

Monday was historic in another way, too. Victims had their day in a way that had never before been seen.

For years, I've been making the drive to the Capitol to cover rallies by child sexual-abuse victims desperately seeking changes in state law. Time and again, the rallies were small. Very few lawmakers came out for them. Same went for reporters. And those who did rally sometimes were rushed off the Capitol steps so that, say, a cause more popular with lawmakers might take their place.

That was not the case Monday.

"We're doing this for those that can't walk with us anymore," Shaun Dougherty, abused as a 13-year-old in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, said as he led scores of fellow victims and advocates into the Capitol for the first of two rallies with public officials.

"Here's to victory," said a notably courageous Republican senator, John Rafferty of Montgomery County, alongside former Lt. Gov. Mark Singel and dozens of current and former lawmakers in a rally with victims. Rafferty declared he would do all he could to win his colleagues' support in the weeks ahead.

Sen. Daylin Leach, the Montgomery County Democrat who joined Republicans two years ago to defeat a similar measure, even took to the lectern to declare he'd had a change of heart. He said he was shaken after reading the latest grand jury report, and came to realize he had been excessively focused on technicalities instead of being a compassionate elected official. He made no mention of the #MeToo troubles of his own that derailed his congressional bid earlier this year.

"I changed my mind," Leach said at an evening vigil held in the Rotunda by Shapiro's office and attended also by Gov. Wolf and his wife, Frances. "I hope some of my colleagues in the Senate try it."

Democratic Sen. Vincent Hughes of Philadelphia, who was among the brave minority two years ago that tried to deliver a similar measure, gave a rousing speech ahead of Wolf — one that echoed exactly what's been on my mind for weeks.

"The next eight days, in many respects, will determine the character of the people who are in this building," Hughes said.