HARRISBURG - In uncommonly blunt comments, the chairman of Pennsylvania's powerful House Judiciary Committee said efforts to allow victims of sexual abuse from decades ago to sue was about one thing: the all-mighty dollar.

The Berks County legislator, in an interview late last week, also said he would not allow a public hearing on a long-stalled bill to extend the statute of limitations despite impassioned pleas from victims of childhood sexual abuse.

"It is not going anywhere, and it's not going to have a hearing," Democratic Rep. Thomas R. Caltagirone said. "What's motivating this and driving this is money. . . . That's what it's all about, the money. It's not about justice."

Caltagirone's remarks have incensed advocates of the legislation - many of them victims of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests - who have been trying to have their voices heard on the bill.

The comments have also thrown fuel onto an already controversial bill that, in addition to Caltagirone, has at least two other powerful opponents: Pennsylvania's insurance industry and the Roman Catholic Church.

John Salveson, president of the Bryn Mawr-based Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse and a victim of clergy abuse, called Caltagirone's comments "insulting" and "ignorant," and questioned how many victims the legislator had spoken to before reaching his conclusion.

"He's an important leader in our legislature, and it seems to me incumbent on any leader to be open to listening to different opinions," Salveson said.

The bill seeks a two-year suspension of the statute of limitations for civil actions by adults who were victims of sexual abuse during childhood.

Delaware and California have approved similar suspensions, called "windows." About a dozen other states have considered or are considering similar windows.

The Pennsylvania bill also would give victims until age 50 to bring a civil action for such acts as rape, incest and sexual assaut. The limit now is 30.

"This is so not about the money," said Rep. Lisa Bennington (D., Allegheny), the legislation's sponsor. "If you asked anyone who has been sexually abused whether money is going to make them whole again, that answer is obviously no."

She added: "They currently have no redress, and most importantly, they want to identify the pedophiles who are out there and who are immune from civil or criminal liabilities."

The one-year window passed in California in 2003 triggered about 1,000 new claims and hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements.

Since the bill was assigned to Caltagirone's committee last May, there have been no hearings, which are necessary before a vote.

"It's very, very frustrating," Bennington said. "These victims want a voice, a chance to tell their story."

Caltagirone's comments came after the bill's advocates held a news conference in the Capitol Monday urging a public hearing.

Among them was Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham, whose investigation into how two cardinals and top aides hid decades of abuse in the Philadelphia Archdiocese ignited the push in Harrisburg for this and other changes to sex-abuse crime law.

Abraham argued that Bennington's bill was not targeted at any one institution and would apply to both private and public institutions that dealt with children.

It takes many victims years, if not decades, to face what happened to them as children, often running out both the criminal and civil statutes of limitations, Abraham said.

Caltagirone's assertion that justice has nothing to do with victims' motivation "shows he's become so politicized that he's forgotten his obligation to the people," said Marci Hamilton, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York.

"And what's most telling is that he is opposed to even being educated about the harm that's been done," said Hamilton, who wrote the book

Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children

.

Caltagirone, a representative in Harrisburg for three decades, said he believed the bill would lift immunity from public school systems, leaving them vulnerable to large damage awards that "would bankrupt them."

The bill would also apply to private schools and other institutions.

He said victims had a recourse - criminal courts. Told that it took some victims years to come to terms with their abuse, Caltagirone said: "So, 32 years later, people will remember exactly what took place?"

A hearing "would create false hopes . . . and be nothing but a dog-and-pony show, and I'm not interested in a dog-and-pony show," he said.

Bennington said Caltagirone's comments reflected what she called "misinformation" about the purpose of the bill, which is a sensitive topic in the Capitol.

Bennington recounted that at a meeting in her office, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, Robert J. O'Hara Jr., questioned why she was taking notes on their discussion about the legislation.

"He thought the meeting should be confidential," said Bennington, who is also a lawyer. "I said, 'I'm not your lawyer, and you're not my priest. This meeting is public.' "

At that, the meeting ended, she said.

In an e-mail, O'Hara wrote that "as a policy we believe it inappropriate to discuss conversations with legislators."

In another e-mail, Amy B. Hill, the Catholic Conference's spokeswoman, detailed its problems with Bennington's bill. Among its concerns: The legislation would hamper the ability of the church and other organizations that care for children to obtain liability insurance.

Hill wrote that unlike in a criminal case, "the standard of proof is much less for a civil case. Anyone can be sued civilly for practically any reason."

Sam Marshall, president of the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania, opposes the idea of a two-year window because insurance companies typically have reserves for liability exposure that are based on the statute of limitations. Changing that would put the companies in an unfair position and likely lead to more expensive policies, he said.

Marshall added that he was "amazed" that people believed he was capable of stopping a bill in its tracks.

"I'm always amazed to hear people say those things," he said. "It's supposed to make me feel powerful, but I never do."

Contact staff writer Angela Couloumbis at 717-787-5934 or acouloumbis@phillynews.com.