HARRISBURG - A Senate committee is preparing to strip out the most contentious aspect of a bill that would expand the ability of child sex-abuse victims to sue for decades-old attacks, according to two legislative sources familiar with the move.
The Republicans who control the Judiciary Committee could as soon as this week remove the provision that would apply the law retroactively, said the sources, who said they were not authorized to publicly discuss the plan.
Hailed by victims' advocates, the language would have opened the door to a wave of lawsuits for child-sex abuse that occurred as far back as the 1970s.
The bill easily passed the GOP-led House this spring - and is supported by Gov. Wolf - but became the source of intense lobbying in the Senate, its last stop before becoming law.
Opponents, notably the Catholic Church, have argued that it would unfairly cripple, if not bankrupt, parishes and their members who deserve no blame for decades-old abuse. Four lawyers, including Solicitor General Bruce L. Castor Jr., told senators at a hearing last week that such a provision would also violate the state constitution.
The sources said the committee planned to leave intact the underlying legislation, which would extend the civil statute of limitations for future victims, giving them until age 50 - rather than 30, as the law now allows - to sue their abusers or the institutions that employed or supervised them.
Instead of allowing the law to be retroactively applied, they said, the GOP committee members are drafting an amendment that would codify the ability of older victims to use "fraudulent concealment" as a way around the statute of limitations: They could still sue for decades-old abuse if they can provide evidence that someone took steps to cover up the assault.
One victim advocate said that does nothing to change current laws, and amounts to little more than political window-dressing.
"It's very clever," said Marci Hamilton, a University of Pennsylvania professor who has represented abuse victims in lawsuits and urged the Senate committee last week to back the bill in its original form.
Hamilton said Pennsylvania courts have "uniformly rejected" fraudulent concealment in old child sex-abuse cases. She said the proposed amendment by committee members reflects their "need for some kind of cover, that it is no longer acceptable to do nothing. But what they are doing is the equivalent of nothing."
Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R., Montgomery), who chairs the Judiciary Committee, declined Wednesday to take a position on the bill, saying negotiations are ongoing. He did confirm discussions about "changes" to the fraudulent concealment provision, "making it easier to use." He would not elaborate.
Sen. Daylin Leach of Montgomery County, the committee's ranking Democrat, could not be reached.
Rep. Mark Rozzi (D., Berks), an abuse victim and one of the legislature's most outspoken advocates of allowing victims to retroactively sue, was disappointed when told of the proposed changes.
Rozzi complained that the bill had not been given a full hearing and was now potentially going to be significantly altered. He said the process smacked of the same institutional secrecy that several grand jury reports uncovered in the Catholic Church's handling of clergy sex abuse.
"At what point," Rozzi said, "does the secrecy end?"