HARRISBURG – The state Senate appears likely to make substantial changes to legislation that passed the state House and would have provided relief to victims of old child sex crimes, like those detailed in a damning grand jury report into cover-ups by the Catholic church.
The House-backed legislation would create a two-year window for victims of old child sex crimes to file lawsuits. It would also eliminate the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution of child sex abuse and covering up such abuse.
Jennifer Kocher, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre County, said Friday the legislation is scheduled to be under consideration in the Senate the week of Oct. 15. Kocher said it’s likely that the Senate will move a new piece of legislation rather than amend the bill that passed in the House, to acclaim from victims, the state victim’s advocate and others.
It was not exactly clear on Friday what changes might be in the offing. Kocher said the legislation to come out of the Senate “will provide justice for the victims and options for compensation.”
The Senate is in session three days the week of Oct. 15 -- the only scheduled legislative days on their calendar before the November election. Traditionally, the Legislature hasn’t undertaken controversial legislation after Election Day.
Marci Hamilton, one of the leading advocates for providing an avenue for victims of abuse to get justice for old crimes, said that she fears that the Senate will remove the civil window and replace it with a program creating a civil registry for sex abusers like one in place in Ohio. Hamilton is a University of Pennsylvania professor and CEO of the advocacy group Child USA.
Hamilton’s group has noted that the pathway for justice for old crimes is needed because in too many cases, the statute of limitations ran out before the victims were ready to come forward. Only about one-third of child sex abuse victims speak out about their abuse as children. One-third of abuse victims never tell anyone, according to Child USA data. Studies have found that the average age for victims to disclose child sex abuse is 52.
Almost none of the victims of the 300 priests, named in the grand jury report examining predator priests and the coverups in six Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania, can get now get justice without opening that civil window for them.
In the wake of the latest grand jury report, the Pennsylvania Catholic bishops announced that they would support an “independent sex abuse survivors compensation program” to handle payments to victims instead of opening a window for lawsuits.
In Ohio's registry program, victims don’t get to sue for damages but they can get a judge to publicly decree that an individual has been deemed a sex offender.
Hamilton said that the registry creates an unnecessary burden for victims who have to hire representation to convince judges to place offenders on the list. It was created in Ohio in 2006 after Catholic bishops there lobbied to get the Legislature to abandon a move to open a one-year window for civil lawsuits, Hamilton said.
Hamilton said that there are changes the Senate could make to the legislation that would be acceptable to advocates for victims.
“If there is a retroactive window” in the legislation. “There is something to talk about,” she said.
If the window is removed, that would be real problem, she said.
In addition, the measure would give victims until the age of 50, up from 30 in current law, to file lawsuits in the future.
A final component of the bill has been criticized by members of the Senate for treating victims of abuse differently depending on who abused them. Under the House proposal, victims suing private organizations, including churches, for their roles in covering abuse would only have to demonstrate negligence. Those suing government agencies, including public schools, would need to demonstrate gross negligence.
Senate Republicans are concerned that the distinction between how public and private organizations are treated “created classes of victims,” said Kocher.
Hamilton said that it would not be that big of a deal if the Senate were to uniformly use “gross negligence” as the standard for both public and private organizations.
The abuse and cover-ups perpetuated by the priests and their superiors in the Church would meet the standard for gross negligence, she said.