Skip to content
Pennsylvania Politics
Link copied to clipboard

In waning days of Pa. Senate voting session, all eyes are on clergy abuse bill

Will the GOP-controlled Senate create a temporary reprieve in the law to allow older victims of child sexual abuse the chance to sue their attackers?

Shown is the Pennsylvania Capitol building in Harrisburg.
Shown is the Pennsylvania Capitol building in Harrisburg.Read moreMatt Rourke / AP

HARRISBURG — Like a sentry, Arthur Baselice Jr. stood in silent protest Monday morning outside the office of the top Republican state senator, clutching a poster depicting the smiling face of his son.

Baselice had been standing a few hours there, outside Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati's office, but no one had approached to talk to him, he said. No one had asked him about the picture on his poster — Arthur 3rd, who was sexually abused by two Franciscan clergymen at his Philadelphia high school and died of a drug overdose in 2006.

"They treat me like wallpaper," he said, as he grimly watched lobbyists walk in and out of other senators' offices.

Baselice was among dozens of victims or their advocates who crowded the Capitol's hallways Monday to urge senators, in the waning days of their voting session, to approve a measure creating a two-year reprieve in the law so that older victims of child sexual abuse can sue for decades-old abuse.

Some stood in the long hallway off the Capitol rotunda, reading aloud portions of the scathing grand jury report released in August on child sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church. Others tried to meet with key senators, hoping that if they saw their faces and heard their stories, they would be persuaded to vote for the measure, which, among other changes, also would give victims whose abuse occurred outside the current statute of limitations a temporary reprieve to bring civil claims.

Time is a factor: Absent a last-minute change, this week marks the final time the Senate will be voting before the legislature's two-year session ends next month. Any legislation that does not pass between now and then will die and have to be started from scratch in the new session. Senators took no action on the bill Monday, and activists will be closely watching to see whether they do so later this week.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro, whose office led the Catholic clergy abuse investigation, has endorsed a two-year reprieve in the law so that older victims can sue for decades-old abuse, as well as other reforms recommended by the grand jury that heard evidence in the case. On Monday, he trekked to the Capitol to meet with victims who lined the hallways, saying he was "optimistic" about talks.

"Pennsylvanians want to see action," said Shapiro, "and I don't think there's any way the Senate leaves here without meaningful action that reflects the … reforms contained in the grand jury report."

The so-called two-year window has been the subject of intense lobbying, as representatives of the Catholic Conference and the insurance industry reach out to legislators to oppose it. In recent weeks, bishops have contacted some senators directly, by phone and letter. Although most attention has focused on its impact on Catholic clergy abuse victims, the legislation under discussion would apply to any victim of child sex abuse by a private or public institution. Current law says victims older than 30 cannot sue for abuse suffered as a child.

Senate Republicans, who hold a commanding majority in the chamber, have expressed concerns over opening a two-year window in the law and have in the past opposed efforts to allow victims to sue retroactively. Many GOP senators say they believe that a window — supported by a majority of the House of Representatives and by child abuse victims — would violate state constitutional protections against time-limited legal claims.

The Senate is poised to vote this week on legislation that currently contains a provision for a two-year window. The chamber's Republican leaders have signaled they plan to amend it but have not committed to any specific changes.

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre), who has said the bill in its current form has "glaring" problems, declined a request for comment made through his spokeswoman and, after a committee meeting, walked away from reporters without speaking. Unlike other senators, he has not said whether he would vote for or against a window.

Meanwhile, Scarnati (R., Jefferson) has been among the most vocal in his opposition to a retroactive window. He and other Republicans have thrown their support behind eliminating the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse in criminal and civil cases for many future victims.

In an interview with reporters Monday outside his office, he said that talks were continuing, but that he was beginning to feel as if he were "negotiating with myself." He stressed that he authored the bill that got the conversation started on how best to help victims and criticized the House for sitting on it for 20 months — only recently sending over what he called "a terrible bill."

Scarnati said he has spoken to many victims and that "justice for some of them is putting people in jail. Justice for other people means being able to face that perpetrator. Justice for some is compensation. And so we are looking for justice. But I don't know how we get vengeance."

Asked whether he believed a two-year window constituted vengeance, he said: "I'm not saying that. But some people want vengeance. We need justice here."

Late last week, Scarnati's office circulated a counter-proposal, calling for creation of a "tribunal" of judges appointed by the state's appellate courts that would, in turn, select an administrator to manage a compensation fund. Scarnati's proposal also would create a public registry that would allow victims to petition courts to add an abuser's name.

The proposal was swiftly opposed by victims and their advocates, many of whom characterize it as a bailout for the Catholic Church and the insurance industry. Both have argued that it could lead to devastating financial blows.

Baselice was standing behind Scarnati as the senator fielded reporters' questions. He was taken aback, he said, by the senator's comments about vengeance.

"It's not vengeance," he said. "It's civilized retribution."