US investigation of priest sex abuse produces first charges

FILE - In this Nov. 13, 2013, file photo, a photo of Rev. Robert Brennan, right, is displayed during a news conference in Philadelphia, where attorneys for the family of Sean McIlmail, an alleged priest-abuse victim, announced a wrongful death lawsuit against Roman Catholic church officials. McIlmail claimed 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.

The state House on Wednesday passed legislation that would open a window for lawsuits by survivors of childhood sex abuse without first seeking to change the Constitution.

The measure isn’t likely to move in the state Senate, where Republicans have said they think that the change to allow lawsuits can only be legally provided by amending the Constitution, a process that will take until 2023 at the earliest.

House Bill 951 passed the state House by a vote of 149-52. Unlike prior versions of the proposal, this legislation would allow survivors of abuse to sue public schools in addition to private schools and other private organizations.

Erica Wright, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland County, said there’s no indication the Senate will act on the measure any time soon.

“Last month, the Pennsylvania Senate passed a constitutional amendment giving all victims of childhood sexual abuse a two-year window to file a case against their abusers. Senate Democrats and Republicans overwhelmingly passed the measure in a 44-3 vote, giving all victims the strongest legal path forward to secure justice,” Wright said.

When the Senate returns to session on April 19, lawmakers in that chamber plan to tackle “how to responsibly allocate COVID-19 stimulus funding to help re-open our state, prepare to pass an on-time budget, and move forward with the Governor’s cabinet confirmations,” she said.

Last month, Ward announced that Senate Republicans wouldn’t back a plan to use an emergency provision to quickly get the proposed change to the state Constitution on the ballot in May or open the window for lawsuits through a bill like the one passed by the state House on Wednesday.

“The strongest legal position to bring closure to this matter and allow all victims (public and private) of childhood sexual abuse to face their abusers is via constitutional amendment,” Ward said.

In the short debate on the bill Wednesday, the only opposition was voiced by state Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware County, who said that he was opposed to allowing lawsuits against public schools for actions taken by school officials who “are long gone.”

Vitali said such lawsuits would hurt taxpayers “who have no responsibility” for covering up for child predators decades ago and it could hurt school children. “This money has to come from somewhere,” he said.

State Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks County, said that it’s appropriate to open a window for all survivors of childhood sex abuse.

“We’re talking about protecting victims of childhood sex abuse whether they were abused in a private institution or a public institution. When you look at victims, you can’t tell where they were abused,” he said. “They all deserve justice,” Rozzi said.

The move to amend the Constitution came after years of lobbying by survivors of priest abuse. The effort picked up steam in 2018 after a statewide grand jury revealed that church officials in six Catholic dioceses had covered up abuse by 300 priests.

The question had been on track to be on the ballot in May but the Department of State bungled the public notice requirement, a foul-up that the Wolf Administration determined meant that the question couldn’t legally be included on the ballot in the spring primary.

Both chambers of the General Assembly voted last month to approve the proposal to put the question of changing the Constitution to open the window for lawsuits on the ballot. However, proponents like Rozzi also pushed for the state House to pass legislation that would immediately open the window without waiting to change the state Constitution in case the state Senate decides to act on the legislation.

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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