HARRISBURG - Four lawyers, including the top aide to the Pennsylvania attorney general, told a state Senate panel Monday that a bill to let child sex-abuse victims sue for decades-old attacks would violate the state's constitution and ultimately fail if challenged in the courts.
"However righteous the policy goals behind [the bill], the General Assembly in its zeal cannot overrule a state constitutional right," said Bruce L. Castor Jr., the former Montgomery County prosecutor who was appointed solicitor general this year by Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane.
A fifth lawyer said the measure was constitutional, urging lawmakers to clear its path and let the courts decide its legality. "If this body wanted to help victims, it could," said Marci Hamilton, the lone representative of victims to testify. "It's very simple. It's very, very simple."
The four-hour Senate Judiciary Committee hearing drew a packed crowd and fueled Capitol rallies before and after the proceeding. It ended without a vote or even a timetable for action; State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R., Montgomery), the committee chair, said he was unsure when the committee or full Senate would act on the bill, which has cleared the House.
Victim advocates maintain that the legislation would deliver justice for victims. Opponents, including the Catholic Church, have complained that it could unfairly expose dioceses and parishes to a devastating wave of lawsuits for misconduct that occurred decades ago.
Greenleaf, who has not taken a public stance, conveyed skepticism from the outset. "Two wrongs don't make a right," he told the crowd. "If there is a problem with the statute, we should find it now."
The parade of witnesses included the state's two highest-ranking prosecutors, each with differing messages.
Kane, whose office this year announced grand jury investigations into decades of clergy sex abuse against children in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, implored senators to pass the bill without amending it.
"I am asking you - I am begging you - to pass that bill immediately," said Kane, whose suspended law license prevents her from issuing legal opinions for the office. "Do whatever needs to be done."
Minutes later, she was followed by Castor, her top aide. He contended that the legislature could not retroactively apply the law and let victims file civil suits over decades-old abuse because the constitution's remedies clause bars people from being liable for claims after a statute of limitations has expired.
Three others said much the same.
Supporters of the bill say that's an inaccurate interpretation of current law.
One law professor, Bruce Antkowiak of St. Vincent College, also noted that the state Supreme Court has not addressed this specific issue.
Hamilton, a University of Pennsylvania law professor who has studied civil statute changes and represented abuse victims in lawsuits, echoed that point during her testimony.
"The law is clear," Hamilton said. "The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has not yet ruled on this."
State Sen. John Rafferty Jr. (R., Montgomery), the committee vice chairman and the Republican nominee for state attorney general, said he was "anxious" to support the bill, but would consider amendments. He was clearer, however, on who should vet the constitutionality issue.
Such decisions, Rafferty said, "are better made by people wearing black robes."
Approved in the House by a 180-15 vote in April, the bill may not come up for a vote before July 1, when legislators typically break until September, Greenleaf said.
Before the hearing, a victims' attorney had called on Greenleaf to remove himself from the matter because his law firm, Elliott Greenleaf, fought the constitutionality of a similar law in 2008, while representing a Catholic religious order sued by an abuse victim.
Greenleaf made no mention of it during the hearing, but afterward told reporters that he had consulted with Megan Martin, parliamentarian of the Senate, and she found no conflict.
Still, advocates left the proceeding unhappy, complaining that the witness list was stacked with opponents of the bill. After the hearing ended, Rep. Mark Rozzi (D., Berks), one of the most ardent backers of the House bill, approached Greenleaf during what appeared to be a testy exchange.
"If this was fair, how would you have the attorney for the Catholic Conference and the attorney for the Insurance Federation testify?" Rozzi, him self a clergy sex-abuse victim, later said. "They are anything but fair. I've never been so hoodwinked in my life."
In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Catholic Conference, which lobbies on behalf of the state's 10 dioceses, reiterated the church's commitment to helping abuse victims.
"The Catholic Church has learned hard lessons regarding child sexual abuse and has taken responsibility for the abuse that has occurred within its ranks," spokeswoman Amy Hill said. "The dioceses across Pennsylvania have implemented changes that offer assistance to abuse survivors and affirm that they are not at fault for the crimes committed against them."