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Catholic benefactor to Pa. senators: Stand with victims or their abusers?

The messages from Wyndmoor insurance magnate James J. Maguire landed as the Senate frantically tried to pull together a compromise for how to help older victims of Catholic clergy abuse.

The State Capitol building stands in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
The State Capitol building stands in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.Read morePaul Taggart/Bloomberg

HARRISBURG — A prominent Catholic benefactor who was pivotal in bringing Pope Francis to Philadelphia in 2015 personally text-messaged state senators Tuesday with a blunt question: "Victims or sexual predators … who will you support?"

Wyndmoor insurance magnate James J. Maguire Sr. delivered those sharp words to senators in the Republican-controlled Senate — including Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) — as the chamber wrestled in the final hours of its session over whether to support a two-year reprieve in the law that would help older victims of child sexual abuse sue the Catholic Church.

The day ended with no action on the emotional issue after hours of closed-door meetings by the majority Republican senators, and the Senate is expected to continue consideration Wednesday.

Maguire, 84, a graduate of St. Joseph's University and a key supporter of Catholic schools and causes in Southeastern Pennsylvania, said he was infuriated by reports out of the state Capitol that Republican leaders, led by Scarnati, continued to oppose a temporary change in the state civil statute of limitations allowing victims of decades-old child sexual-abuse access to the courts. It is a key recommendation of the grand jury that investigated clergy abuse in nearly every Catholic diocese in Pennsylvania.

Current law limits lawsuits to victims under 30 years of age.

The House approved the measure late last month, and Gov. Wolf has expressed his support for it

"I know you're voting on the 2 year extension for sexual assault," Maguire, a lifelong Catholic who launched an insurance company that later grew to include several subsidiaries, wrote in a text message to several senators. "I hope you have the courage to vote in favor of extending the statute of limitation! Victims or sexual predators … who will you support?"

A similar message was sent to Scarnati, according to Maguire. The top Republican senator, he said, chastised him for being "inappropriate."

"He says I am inappropriate because I ask him to vote in favor of the victims instead of the perpetrators?" Maguire said in an interview Tuesday afternoon. As a taxpayer, he said, "I pay his bills. I pay his salary."

Drew Crompton, Scarnati's chief of staff and the Senate's top lawyer, said Scarnati does not know Maguire and received a text from him "out of the blue" that included references to his "significant philanthropy and the statute of limitations."

"Sen. Scarnati found Mr. Maguire's text problematic and informed him of such," Crompton said. "Sen. Scarnati harbors no ill will for Mr. Maguire or his advocacy but as the senator indicated to him, he makes policy decisions solely on the merits."

Maguire would not say which other senators, aside from Scarnati, he contacted, only those who have wavered on supporting the two-year lawsuit window.

The latter is at the heart of a fierce and emotional tug-of-war in the legislature, and Scarnati has been among the most vocal opponents of the change, which he believes is unconstitutional.

He and other Republicans have been working on an alternative plan but declined to release details about it Tuesday as many of them left the Capitol to attend a fund-raiser in downtown Harrisburg. The clock is ticking: Wednesday is the last scheduled voting day in the legislature's two-year session. After this week, legislators are expected to go on break in advance of next month's election.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, a Democrat from Allegheny County, said in an interview Tuesday evening that neither he nor any of his members knew what plan Republicans were leaning toward.

Of the negotiations, he said: "Sen. Scarnati is taking them over at this point. He is the only one negotiating."

Maguire said he felt compelled to reach out to the senators because he believes the church "should have to answer to the sins of their priests."

He said he is a practicing Catholic who regularly attends Mass and believes in the church's teachings, but is "disgusted" with how the church's leadership has handled the child sexual-abuse scandal.

"There are so many kids that were silenced over the years and never had the courage to come forth," he said. "And with the statute of limitations change, they would have the opportunity to finally come forth. And I think they are entitled to come forth. … There is nothing worse than a sexual abuse of a child."

Over the years, Maguire has donated millions of dollars to Catholic causes and foundations. He and his wife, Frances, launched the Maguire Foundation, which provides scholarships to Catholic high schools in Philadelphia. They also gave $50 million last year to St. Joseph's — the largest gift in the university's history.

He was also part of the executive leadership cabinet that was instrumental in luring Pope Francis to visit Philadelphia during September 2015's World Meeting of Families, which was held in the city.

Maguire has also donated to political campaigns. On a national level, he has contributed about $70,000 to candidates and political committees, mostly Republican, over the last decade.

At the state level, he spent about $130,000 on campaigns over the last decade, including giving Gov. Wolf, a Democrat, a total of $105,000 since 2012.  He also donated a total of $2,000 to Scarnati in 2014 and 2015.

Staff writer Craig R. McCoy contributed to this article.