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Pa. grand jury report on clergy sexual abuse sets stage for Capitol showdown

The state legislature is set to return to session in the Capitol next week, and at the center of the the debate will be this question: should lawmakers create a window to allow older victims of child sexual abuse to sue?

Under President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati  the Pa. Senate will face a decision on whether to approve opening a window on the state's civil statute of limitations for child sex abuse.
Under President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati the Pa. Senate will face a decision on whether to approve opening a window on the state's civil statute of limitations for child sex abuse.Read moreMATT ROURKE / AP

HARRISBURG — On Wednesday, the top Republican in the state Senate and a rank-and-file House member spoke for the first time, face-to-face, behind closed doors in the state Capitol.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) and Rep. Mark Rozzi (D., Berks) are the faces of opposing sides in the emotional debate over taking a dramatic step on behalf of sexual-assault victims: temporarily setting aside the state's civil statute of limitations that bars accusers older than 30 from suing over abuse that occurred when they were children.

The meeting, called by Scarnati, appeared to be an attempt to temper a nasty public fight on the issue, one that once led Rozzi, who was abused by a Catholic priest as a teen, to call Scarnati a "hit man" for the church.

The two parted on good terms, but without any agreement, Rozzi said.

Their meeting foreshadows a showdown when legislators return to the Capitol on Monday for a truncated voting session. It also raises the question of whether Scarnati, who has successfully led past efforts to block opening the so-called legal window on the statute of limitations, can hold together what was once an ironclad coalition of like-minded senators.

The pressure of a key election looming in November, combined with relentless headlines surrounding the damning grand jury report on Catholic clergy abuse and its systemic cover-up in Pennsylvania, has magnified the already high stakes.

What appears certain is that the House will pass a bill that will be amended to create a two-year window allowing for the filing of civil suits outside the statute of limitations on child sex abuse. It has deep support among both majority Republicans and Democrats in that chamber, which passed a more expansive measure in 2016. All eyes will then be on Scarnati and his GOP-controlled Senate.

"The battle has always been in the Senate," Rozzi said in an interview after his meeting with Scarnati.

Scarnati has declined repeated requests, over several weeks, for an interview. He did release a statement reiterating his belief that it is unconstitutional to retroactively allow victims to sue for decades-old offenses, but said he continues to support extending the statute of limitations for future victims. He also threw a new element into the debate, endorsing the idea of a victims compensation fund administered by a "neutral third party."

That idea had been privately pushed in recent weeks by lobbyists for the Catholic Church. For years the church had fiercely fought any measure opening the door to a wave of lawsuits in older cases, saying it could bankrupt parishes and force today's parishioners to pay for the sins of the past.

Late Friday, all eight of the state's Roman Catholic bishops announced their support for such a fund, saying it would "provide a resolution to survivors and allow them to avoid difficult and prolonged litigation." But they offered few details on how it would work and how much money would be available.

Critics call such a fund a cop-out — a way for the church to avoid larger payouts in court cases.

The push for a victims compensation fund comes at a time when many in the Capitol believe the tide is turning, even in the Senate, in favor of creating a window.

Much of that pressure has been generated by the grand jury report released last month by state Attorney General Josh Shapiro. The document revealed that more than 300 priests sexually abused more than 1,000 children over seven decades in six of the state's eight Roman Catholic dioceses. Church leaders covered up the crimes for so long that in most cases it was too late to prosecute them, the report found.

Among the remedies pushed by the grand jury: opening a two-year window on the civil statute of limitations.

"We saw these victims; they are marked for life," the grand jurors wrote. "Many of them wind up addicted, or impaired, or dead. … Our proposal would open a limited `window,' offering them a chance, finally, to be heard in court. All we're asking is to give those two years back."

At least nine states, including Delaware, California, and Minnesota, have enacted similarly limited windows over the last 15 years.

Top state officials, including Gov. Wolf, have urged the legislature to approve the concept, as well as three other policy changes recommended by the grand jury. During a conference call with reporters Wednesday, Wolf noted that a victims compensation fund was not among the grand jurors' recommendations.

"I don't support that," he said.

The issue has become political, too. Victims' advocates have taken out ads and planned events in the backyards of several legislators facing reelection this fall, including some of the Senate's highest-ranking members. They are also planning a daylong series of marches and rallies in and around the Capitol on Monday.

Targeted especially hard has been Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, a Republican from Centre County, who faces a competitive election this year. Corman heads the Senate committee that will be the first in line to decide the fate of a two-year window, should the proposal pass the House this week as expected.

In 2016, Republican senators on the influential Judiciary Committee banded together to oppose a similar measure, arguing that it was unconstitutional. This year, that solid line of Republican opposition is not certain. Several moderate-leaning GOP senators in the Philadelphia suburbs, already facing tough races in a critical election, are viewed as more vulnerable to pressure to vote for a window. Several, including Robert "Tommy" Tomlinson (R., Bucks) and Stewart Greenleaf (R., Montgomery), did not return calls.

Sen. Thomas McGarrigle (R., Delaware)  said in a statement that a victims compensation fund may be "a better option than litigation," but did not rule out supporting a window.

Corman, who has been targeted at rallies and on social media, said in an interview last week that he was considering whether to support a limited window. He said he asked the Attorney General's Office for a legal opinion on its constitutionality. (Shapiro has said several times that he believes the measure is constitutional.)

The full Senate has never considered the proposal. If the House passes it, as expected, Corman will face a decision: Kill the measure in his committee, alter it, or allow it to proceed to a vote by the full Senate without major changes.

If the bill comes to that floor vote, senators will be forced to take a stand — and some victim advocates believe the public pressure will work in their favor.

Even some legislators acknowledge the political climate has changed, largely because of the Aug. 14 grand jury report. Lawmakers were not in session most of the summer and thus not forced to examine the issue as a group.

"I think a number of minds are changing," said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny), though he acknowledged it is too early to predict how many in his caucus would vote for a window. He said he supports all of the grand jury recommendations.

Lobbyists and others working on behalf of the church are quietly hoping that the push for a window can be thwarted by the bishops' support for a victims compensation fund.

In New York, five dioceses have hired an outside law firm to oversee victims compensation funds.

The administrator of those funds, Camille Biros of the Law Offices of Kenneth R. Feinberg, said her team has reviewed 1,258 claims from victims, and settled roughly three-quarters of those cases. In assessing the claims and determining payouts, the team seeks documentation from the church and victims, whenever possible, and considers the age of the victim, the type of abuse, and other factors.

"The settlement offers and determinations we've made and accepted are nowhere near what someone in a courtroom could get if they prove their cases," Biros said, but added that the process offers "a speed that a courtroom does not."

The Archdiocese of New York has paid out nearly $60 million over the last two years to 278 victims through its compensation fund, a spokesperson for the archdiocese told media there last month. By contrast, a lawsuit filed by four men against the Diocese of Brooklyn and another entity just resulted in one of the largest court settlements for clergy abuse victims: $27.5 million.

Rozzi said he would consider supporting a victims compensation fund in Pennsylvania if the dioceses committed a significant amount of money and if a two-year window were also established.

He said that he was grateful for the chance to speak with Scarnati in person for the first time, and that their meeting helped humanize the man with whom he has fiercely clashed — from afar — in recent years.

At the end of their discussion, Rozzi said he reached out to shake the senator's hand. Instead, he received a hug.

"At least I can feel there's a heart in there," Rozzi said.