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Gov. Wolf pushes state Senate to support window to sue for sexual abuse survivors

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Sean Stipp | Trib Total Media

Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday applauded members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives for swiftly passing a bill to create a two-year window for survivors of child sexual abuse previously timed out of court to sue their abusers.

Building on a campaign he launched this month, Wolf challenged the state Senate to now adopt the legislation recommended by a statewide grand jury that found 301 priests abused at least 1,000 children in six Catholic dioceses — including Greensburg and Pittsburgh — over decades and largely escaped legal consequences due to death and the state’s statute of limitations for prosecuting such crimes.

The House amended Senate bill 261 and passed it 173-21, including a temporary, two-year window for past victims who are timed out of the legal system to file civil suits.

The bill also eliminates criminal statutes of limitations in future child sexual abuse cases and gives victims until age 50 to sue perpetrators and those who supervise them.

The bill now is back with the Senate. There are 10 voting days remaining in this session.

“The tireless work of the advocates, Rep. Mark Rozzi, Attorney General Shapiro, the victims who bravely spoke out, and the families of those who have lost loved ones because of these heinous abuses has helped the House to move quickly, demonstrating again that Pennsylvania is at the forefront of states willing to take these issues seriously. I now ask the Senate to take up this legislation and follow suit with passage of this landmark legislation,” Wolf said in a statement.

House members two years ago passed a similar bill following a grand jury’s findings of long-concealed reports of clergy sexual abuse in the Altoona-Johnstown Catholic Diocese. That bill failed to pass in the Senate — where leaders again have expressed skepticism about such legislation, questioning whether it would pass muster under the state constitution.

On Monday, Wolf joined state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, abuse survivors and supporters of the bill to create retroactive window to sue at a rally in Harrisburg.

Although the legislation was prompted by the grand jury report on clergy sexual abuse, advocates said it would benefit all victims of child sexual abuse, many of whom don’t come forward for decades.

Both the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the Pennsylvania Insurance Federation have lobbied against any kind of retroactive window for civil suits, citing constitutional and financial concerns.

Citing the likelihood of prolonged litigation and fear of the financial toll such a measure could inflict on the Church, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference last week recommended that lawmakers reject the window for old claims and instead support a settlement fund for old claims to be underwritten by the dioceses and administered by a neutral third party.

The battle over the bill comes on the eve of a Pennsylvania Supreme Court hearing in Philadelphia where lawyers for a dozen clergy members who objected to the recent grand jury report and had their names redacted argue that grand jury procedures left them with no vehicle to defend their right to reputation under the state constitution.

Shapiro wants the full report outlining the findings of the grand jury’s two-year investigation to be made public.

Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 412-320-7996, [email protected] or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.

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