Clergy abuse survivors urge state Senate to return and vote on lawsuit bill
Clergy sexual abuse survivors say they have the votes to pass a state bill establishing a window for older victims to sue their abusers, and they’re challenging the Pennsylvania Senate to return to Harrisburg for a vote.
“We have the votes. The votes are there to pass SB 261 as it stands,” said Ryan O’Connor. “We just need the majority to allow it to come to a vote.”
O’Connor, 47, of Verona, who has written of his abuse as a child at the hands of a parish priest in Johnstown, is traveling the state with Jim Van Sickle, another survivor who serves as Survivor Advocacy Coordinator for Stop Child Predator, a national nonprofit group.
“There is a lot of support in the Senate for this bill, and we’re asking that they return and vote on it,” Van sickle said.
Van Sickle and O’Connor spoke in Greensburg on Tuesday after making previous appearances in Lancaster, Allentown, Reading, Ebensburg, Scranton and Pittsburgh.
The bill that passed the state House by an overwhelming margin in September stalled in the Senate last month when Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, refused to bring it to the floor for a vote.
Statute of limitations included in the current state law bars victims older than 30 from filing lawsuits. Survivors and their supporters want a new law that would establish a two-year window in which to sue perpetrators and institutions such as the Catholic Church.
A statewide grand jury that investigated decades of child sex abuse by Catholic priests recommended such a law change when its report was released in August. The panel said it found rampant clergy sexual abuse and cover-ups in Catholic churches across the state, with at least 1,000 children having been abused by priests over 70 years.
Those findings triggered the launch of a series of similar investigations by state attorneys general across the nation and prompted the U.S. Attorney in Philadelphia to subpoena records from every Catholic diocese in Pennsylvania.
But the Pennsylvania Senate wasn’t moved to act.
After hours of backroom meetings last month, the Senate adjourned Oct. 17 with no action on the bill.
Now abuse survivors are traveling the state, holding press conferences and demanding that the Senate return and vote before the end of the year.
State Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, said they may be wrong about there being enough Senate support to pass the bill.
“I know we did not have the votes when we went home,” she said. “I much prefer to compromise and go with the Scarnati bill.”
Scarnati’s proposal, an alternative supported by the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the Pennsylvania Insurance Federation, would create a window of opportunity for older victims to sue their perpetrators but exempts institutions such as the church from liability, even if there is evidence of cover-ups. It also would establish a settlement fund to compensate victims.
“People would get their money in 18 months that way,” Ward said. “If we pass the version with the House language, someone would challenge it and we’d end up in court. I hope we can come up with a compromise so the victims can find peace.”
Van Sickle and O’Connor said that isn’t the point.
“We’re not looking for money. We’re looking for that day in court,” Van Sickle said. “The only people I hear talking about money are the church.”
“It is the only way these people are going to be held accountable,” O’Connor said.
Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 412-320-7996, [email protected] or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.