Controversial Child Sex-Abuse Bill Goes to Senate

HARRISBURG, Pa. (EYT) – In what law professor Marci A. Hamilton called “still a halfway measure of what needs to be done for victims,” Pennsylvania’s Senate held a hearing on June 13, for a bill that would extend the statute of limitations for victims of child sex-abuse from 30 to 50 years.

Senator Stewart J. Greenleaf heard testimonies from the Attorney General and Solicitor General of Pennsylvania, along with several professors of law throughout the state.

The hearing came after Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives passed House Bill 1947 on April 12, in an overwhelming 180/15 vote.

The amended bill reads: “If an individual entitled to bring a civil action arising from childhood sexual abuse is under 18 years of age at the time the cause of action accrues, the individual shall have a period of 32 years after attaining 18 years of age in which to commence an action for damages regardless of whether the individual files a criminal complaint regarding the childhood sexual abuse.”

The bill has come under fire from the Catholic Church, which has been grappling with child sex-abuse cases for decades.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput- AP Photo/Will Powers

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput- AP Photo/Will Powers

According to a report, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput has been an outspoken opponent of the bill, citing that its retroactivity could result in numerous lawsuits that would damage parishes and schools, possibly leading to the bankruptcy of churches.

The Catholic Church has taken steps against the bill, creating a petition on the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference website. The body of the petition’s message reads:

“Pennsylvania’s 3 million Catholics cannot afford to defend their parishes and Catholic schools from expensive and unfair lawsuits that are 20, 30, or 40 years old, long after the perpetrator and possible witnesses have died or clear evidence is gone. Bankrupting the parishes, schools, and ministries of today’s Catholics that benefit our community will not provide healing nor protect children.”

“Sexual abuse is a serious crime that affects every institution and community in Pennsylvania, public and private. Because of its gravity, it needs to be dealt with comprehensively and fairly. Vote no on unfair statute of limitations amendments.”

In her testimony, Hamilton, the chair of public law at Cardozo School of Law, said the number of child sex-abuse claims to come forward will be small. She cited past instances in states like Delaware, which has abolished the statute of limitations in child sex-abuse cases entirely.

Several Philadelphia area House Representatives who voted in support of the bill have been targeted by the Catholic Church.

In an opinion piece for the Delaware County Daily Times, Rep. Nick Miccarelli, R-Delaware, said he was called out in his St. Rose of Lima church bulletin for supporting the bill. The note read:

JUST SO YOU ARE AWARE – State Representative Miccarelli voted in favor of House Bill 1947 which states that private institutions can be sued as far as 40 years ago for millions of dollars, while public institutions may not be sued for any crimes committed in the past.

Miccarelli stated that the bill does not single out churches, and is in effect for public institutions as well. While public institutions, under the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania law, are granted sovereign immunity, the bill would not keep them from being sued on grounds of gross negligence.

“It is my belief, and I’d venture to say the belief of most if not all of my colleagues, that any institution, public, or private, which engages in a coordinated cover up of child rape, should be held accountable. Perhaps the language of this legislation is not clear enough, and I will certainly advocate to my colleagues that sit in the state Senate to ensure that the final language makes it very clear that we will not tolerate or give quarter to any organization, public or private that has sided with the predator over the victim,” Miccarelli wrote.

Another proponent of HB 1947, Rep. R. Lee James, R-Venango, called the issue “extremely emotional” and “sensitive.”

“It’s very hard to vote ‘no’ when it comes to issues, which deal with innocent children,” James said. “Some form of punishment is probably in order.”

James stated that he understood the opposing side, though and that he is skeptical of the entire movement. He said some older suspects and victims may not remember events correctly, and people may falsely come forward in order to seek a cash settlement reward.

“I really can see both sides of the coin, both sides of the issue. We want to do the right thing, but we don’t want to put people in jeopardy that rightfully should not be there, either,” James said.

Hamilton said in her testimony that false claims rarely happen, and scientific studies have shown that children rarely make up stories concerning sexual abuse.

Rep. Donna Oberlander, R-Armstrong/Clarion/Forest, voted against HB 1947 because she is concerned the bill’s retroactivity would be taking a step backward.

“Going forward, [the bill] keeps the window open for those who have been victimized to take action, and I certainly have no trouble with that. My concern, and what is really an unknown, is what it does backwards. There’s a lot of material lost in that time frame,” Oberlander explained.

She said people could have changed or died, and institutions’ documentation could be different.

Oberlander also said she believes the Pope and the Catholic Church are now correcting issues within the institution concerning child sex-abuse problems.

Another concern Oberlander raised was the bill’s potential to set a precedent for retroactivity on other issues.

Oberlander wants to vote in favor of a bill that helps child sex-abuse victims, but believes corrections need to be made in order for her yes vote to be possible.

“I certainly can sympathize with the victims of this horrendous crime and want them to be able to have the window of opportunity extended, so they are able to have that opportunity.”

Either way politicians and law professionals lean, HB 1947 still has the possibility of dying in November if it is not voted on by both the House and Senate. It may be reintroduced by the Senate later on if the bill is deemed of high enough importance.

Further reports will be posted as decisions concerning the bill are made.

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