US investigation of priest sex abuse produces first charges

FILE - In this Nov. 13, 2013, file photo, Kaitlyn McIlmail, the sister of Sean McIlmail, an alleged priest-abuse victim, holds a photo of her brother as her mother Debbie McIlmail, left, speaks during a news conference in Philadelphia. McIlmail claimed Rev. Robert L. Brennan abused him for years, beginning at age 11. Federal prosecutors in Philadelphia have charged Brennan, a former Roman Catholic priest with lying to the FBI about whether he knew the accuser and his family. Authorities say Brennan was arrested in Maryland and is expected to be arraigned Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019, in Philadelphia.

Adult survivors of child abuse are angry over the continued wait for the full state Senate to take up legislation that would immediately open a window for lawsuits without changing the state Constitution.

The measure, House Bill 951, passed the Senate judiciary committee last week. If the Senate had acted on the bill this week, it would have set up a final vote in the state House before sending the bill to the governor.

Tuesday afternoon, Erica Wright, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland County, said that there are no immediate plans to vote on the bill. She noted in a follow-up email that she could only say that there were no plans to vote on the legislation “this week.”

After this week, the Senate next returns to a voting session on May 10.

The lack of progress outraged adult survivors of abuse and advocates who’ve been pressing for the state to open a window for lawsuits and had felted emboldened by signs that resistance from Senate Republicans was cracking.

“Kim Ward is choosing to side with bishops’ lobbyists and not side with justice and kids. Unfortunately, survivors suffer and kids will suffer,” said Kathryn Robb, executive director of Child USAdvocacy, a Philadelphia-based organization that lobbies to change the law to help survivors seek justice.

“It’s profoundly disappointing, especially in the backdrop of what’s happening across the country,” Robb said, adding that she’s scheduled to testify before lawmakers in Nevada and in Louisiana on statute of limitations reforms for survivors of abuse. A bill to open a window for lawsuits by survivors of abuse is on its way to the desk of the governor in Arkansas, she said.

“Arkansas! That’s a heavily Republican state,” she said. “What’s wrong with Pennsylvania?”

It’s the second time in a month that a measure that would have opened a window for adult survivors of abuse to sue their abusers and organizations like the Catholic Church that covered up for predators passed out of the judiciary committee and then stalled. In March, after the state House approved legislation that would have used an emergency provision to ask voters to approve a change to the state Constitution

“After careful consideration, it has been determined by the majority that this matter does not meet the emergency status criteria and does not correct the failure by the Wolf Administration,” Ward said in a statement. “The strongest legal position to bring closure to this matter and allow all victims (public and private) of childhood sexual to face their abusers is via constitutional amendment,” she said.

Last week, when the judiciary committee approved HB 951, both Senate President Pro Tem Jake Corman, R-Centre County, and Senate Judiciary Committee chairwoman Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne County, voted in favor of the bill and said that they’d changed their views and were willing to back the idea of opening the window without first changing the Constitution.

Corman said that while he still believes that changing the Constitution is legally the safest route to go and “may be the fastest” if there are legal challenges to HB 951, he thinks “we can move down this dual path” and seek to open the window for lawsuits legislatively while also moving to ask voters whether to change the Constitution -- a ballot question that won’t appear until 2023 at the earliest.

“Enough is enough,” he said.

Corman’s support had given survivors of abuse hope that the legislation would pass in the Senate, said Shaun Dougherty, a survivor of priest abuse from Johnstown.

“I was expecting movement,” Dougherty said. “From what I hear, Corman is fighting for us,” he said.

In the committee vote, HB 951 passed 11-3. But state Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming County, who was one of the Republicans who voted in favor of the bill in committee, said he wasn’t sure he would support the legislation on final passage over the concerns about the Constitutionality and a provision that would grant “extraordinary jurisdiction” to consider any challenges to the law.

State Sen. John Gordner, R-Columbia County, was one of three Republicans who voted against the legislation in the Judiciary Committee.

He said he did so out of concern about the precedent the state would setting if it changed the law retroactively. Based on that precedent, there would be “no defenses we can’t overturn by statute,” Gordner said.

John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for the New Castle News and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

 

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CNHI PA State Reporter

John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for the New Castle News and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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