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Eleventh-hour maneuvering could imperil proposal to help victims of Pa. Catholic clergy sexual abuse

The Senate's top Republican is pushing an alternative proposal that rejects calls for a two-year reprieve in Pennsylvania's statute of limitations for filing child sexual abuse lawsuits.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R.,Jefferson), wants to open Pennsylvania primaries to unaffiliated voters.
Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R.,Jefferson), wants to open Pennsylvania primaries to unaffiliated voters. Read moreMatt Rourke

HARRISBURG — The top Republican in the Pennsylvania Senate is circulating a proposal that rejects what a statewide grand jury, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the House of Representatives, and scores of victims advocates have been seeking: a second chance for older victims of child sexual abuse to sue their attackers and the institutions that covered it up.

A proposal generated by top staff to Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) would instead create a "tribunal" of judges to oversee a victims-compensation fund that would be open to claims by victims whose abuse occurred outside the current statute of limitations. It would also allow for some kind of public registry, and victims could petition to get the names of their abusers listed on it, according to a copy of the proposal obtained by the Inquirer and Daily News and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Missing from Scarnati's proposal: a hotly contested measure that would lift the civil statute of limitations for two years for victims who are too old, under the law, to file civil claims. Under the current statute of limitations, victims have until the age of 30 to sue.

The so-called two-year "window" was among the recommendations of the statewide grand jury that spent two years investigating child sexual abuse in nearly every Catholic diocese in Pennsylvania, and chronicled abuse by more than 300 priests and how church officials concealed it for years. Shapiro, whose office led the investigation, has endorsed the idea, as have a majority of members in the GOP-controlled House, who approved a version last month.

But the measure has been opposed by Scarnati and other Republicans who hold the majority in the Senate who believe opening a two-year window would violate the remedies clause in the state Constitution, which has been interpreted by the courts as prohibiting time-barred legal actions. It is a position shared by lobbyists for the Catholic Church and the insurance industry.

Drew Crompton, the top lawyer for Senate Republicans, declined to comment on the latest proposal by Scarnati. In a Twitter post Friday afternoon, Crompton said negotiations were continuing. "The goals are to deliver compensation and justice for the victims," Crompton wrote.

Scarnati has declined repeated requests for comment.

Rep. Mark Rozzi (D., Berks), a clergy-abuse victim who has championed a temporary reprieve in the statute, called Scarnati's proposal lacking in both substance and political courage.

"The two-year window is essential," Rozzi said at a Capitol news conference Friday. He added: "No more excuses. No more political games. This is our opportunity to do the right thing, right now."

Scarnati's proposal would create a tribunal of judges appointed by Pennsylvania's appellate courts, including the state Supreme Court. That tribunal would then hire an administrator to run a victims-compensation fund and report back to the tribunal on how the money in it is distributed, according to a copy of the proposal. It does not say who would contribute to the fund — although it implies the fund would be open to the Catholic church as well as other private organizations.

All eight Roman Catholic bishops in the state have thrown their support behind the concept of a victims-compensation fund. In other states, such funds have paid lower sums for damages than courts have ordered in lawsuits. Supporters of a fund say it provides a faster, less traumatic way to compensate victims. But victims advocates dismiss it as a cop-out, saying it would spare the church from justly compensating victims for its crimes.

Scarnati's proposal would also create a public registry to allow victims to openly name their abusers — but it provides scant detail on what victims would have to do to get an abuser's name on it. Ohio launched a similar registry a decade ago, and it has been roundly criticized for its ineffectiveness in getting victims to use it.

Scarnati's counterproposal also calls for eliminating the criminal and civil statutes of limitations in child sexual abuse cases for future victims.

It is unclear whether Scarnati's alternative to a two-year window has the support of other Republicans in the chamber's majority. Many advocates believe that if a two-year window were brought to a vote on the full Senate floor, it would receive overwhelming support.

Shapiro, during a news conference in Norristown Friday, said Scarnati's proposal for a compensation fund favors the church and is "designed to further silence the victims."

The Senate is scheduled to return to the Capitol Monday, and has just three voting days left before its two-year session ends. Any legislation that is not approved before then will have to be reintroduced when a new session begins in January.

"Senators have a choice; they can either stand with us or they can stand with lobbyists and those who oppose these reforms," Shapiro said.

Staff writer Matthew McCann contributed to this report.