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Will blistering Pa. grand jury report on Catholic clergy sex abuse lead to political change?

The issue has been a contentious one, bogged down by politics and backroom lobbying.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, center, speaks on the findings of the grand jury report on Catholic clergy sexual abuse. The report recommends changing the law to allow older victims to sue. (Michael Bryant/Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, center, speaks on the findings of the grand jury report on Catholic clergy sexual abuse. The report recommends changing the law to allow older victims to sue. (Michael Bryant/Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)Read moreMichael Bryant/Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS

HARRISBURG —  At the end of its devastating report finding that Roman Catholic bishops across Pennsylvania covered up decades of child sex abuse at the hands of priests, involving more than 1,000 victims, the state grand jury drew lawmakers a road map toward justice.

Among its recommendations was the idea of giving older adults the right to file lawsuits for abuse they suffered as children, a proposed change that has paralyzed the legislature for years, leading to questions of whether the new findings would change the politics of the issue enough to bring a different result.

Political disagreements and backroom lobbying have repeatedly stalled bills that would have retroactively loosened the statute of limitations for claims against the church, even as prosecutors have produced one damning report after another.

With the latest report, every Roman Catholic diocese in the state has been implicated, thus highlighting abuse in nearly every legislator's district. That brings the potential for public outrage and pressure on lawmakers. Yet the entire House and half the Senate is up for reelection, there are few legislative voting days left in the year, and powerful opposition to change remains.

"I don't know how anybody could read the report and not want to take action," said House Majority Leader Dave Reed (R., Indiana), who has supported allowing victims who have aged out of the civil statute of limitations to sue.

But he acknowledges it will be difficult, noting that some religious groups have already begun contacting legislators.

"What makes me crazy is that you have these sort of crimes committed. … And it seems like the number-one goal of individuals associated with it is to kill policy changes," he said.

Reed called that "politics and inhumanity at its worst."

The latest grand jury report investigated six of the state's eight Roman Catholic dioceses, including Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, and Allentown. It ended by recommending that the legislature change the law to, among other things, create a two-year window to allow for civil suits by older victims.

While victims say the ability to sue could help them access services to cope with the trauma, lobbyists for the Catholic Church and the insurance industry have opposed such legislation, saying a flood of lawsuits would deliver a crushing financial blow.

Those two influential forces have found a receptive ear in Republicans who control the Senate. Led by President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson), GOP senators gutted legislation in the 2015-16 session that would have allowed older victims to sue, even if the statute of limitations had expired in their cases. As it stands, abuse victims can file civil claims only until they are 30.

>> READ MORE: If the grand jury report doesn't force a reckoning in the Catholic Church, it's time to walk away | Mike Newall

In blocking the measure, Scarnati said that he and many in his chamber supported extending the civil and criminal statute of limitations for future victims — but that it would be unconstitutional to make the change retroactive.

At the time, many legal experts argued that the constitutionality of such a measure was an issue for the courts, not the legislature, and that similar efforts had survived legal challenges in other states.

The GOP-controlled House supported the retroactivity clause, which was championed by State Rep. Mark Rozzi (D., Berks), a victim of clergy sexual abuse. Rozzi and some victim advocates blamed lobbying and campaign cash for torpedoing the reform effort, which has carried over to this legislative session.

"To me, they are just playing politics, they are politicians," Rozzi said after the grand jury's report was released Tuesday. "I didn't come to Harrisburg to be a [lying] politician."

State records show that the Catholic Conference of Pennsylvania, the lobbying arm of the church, and the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania have spent a combined $6.5 million to try to influence lawmakers since the start of 2016. It is not clear how much of that money went specifically to kill retroactivity measures because the state does not require lobbyists to release detailed breakdowns of their spending.

The Insurance Federation also is a generous campaign donor, giving $30,000 to Scarnati alone during that same time. While Scarnati has blocked retroactivity, he is the prime sponsor of a bill to eliminate the civil and criminal statute of limitations for child sex abuse claims in most future cases.

Scarnati did not respond to an interview request made through his spokesperson. The Insurance Federation's president and CEO, Samuel R. Marshall, in a statement said the group supports Scarnati's bill and agrees with Scarnati's assessment that retroactivity measures raise constitutional concerns.

"There are also unique insurance considerations in trying to retroactively create liability long after a statute of limitations has passed, but today is not the time for a discussion of insurance economics and the limits of coverage," Marshall said.

A spokeswoman for the Catholic Conference did not respond to a message.

Already, legislators are receiving emails from organizations supportive of the church, Reed said. That pressure is only likely to ramp up as the legislature returns to the Capitol next month for a whirlwind series of votes; the House has 11 scheduled voting days left and the Senate has 10 before the legislative session expires at the end of November. Any bill that does not pass before then has to be reintroduced in January, and start its legislative arc from scratch.

Complicating matters between now and then is a high-stakes election in which all 203 seats in the House, and 25 seats in the Senate, are up for grabs. Legislators have historically avoiding taking hot-button votes during that time, making a quick resolution on statute of limitations reform less likely.

Still, Reed said he was optimistic. Although official negotiations haven't been scheduled, Reed said he intends to bring Scarnati's bill, which passed the Senate last year, up for a vote in his chamber. He expects, however, that the bill will be changed to reflect the grand jury's recommendations.

"If folks are not spurred to do something after reading these reports, I cannot imagine anything else that would get their attention," he said.