Retroactive provision of child abuse bill debate
HARRISBURG — Advocates and opponents of legislation expanding the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse debated the issue Monday at a Senate hearing, but those favoring the changes claim the witness list was stacked and the chairman has a conflict of interest.
The bill would extend the age for people filing civil suits for sexual abuse from 30 to 50. The bill prevents organizations from claiming immunity if they act with gross negligence.
But the key provision under debate is allowing retroactive lawsuits until a person turns 50 years old.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery County, denied a conflict because of his law firm’s representation of a monastic order in a civil suit alleging abuse, saying he was not personally involved. A senior partner in Elliott Greenleaf, a suburban Philadelphia law firm, Greenleaf said he anticipated a question might arise and he checked with the Senate parliamentarian last week, who told him he would “have to vote on it as chairman, if it came up.” There was no vote.
“It wasn’t a conflict,” Greenleaf said.
“The whole hearing reeked of being a set up,” Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Reading, an abuse victim and leading advocate of expanding the time for filing civil suits. “I’m embarrassed today to call myself a representative for the commonwealth.”
The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and some businesses groups oppose the bill.
A grand jury report in March alleging abuse by Roman Catholic priests triggered the bill’s passage in the House. Greenleaf said the Senate will “take ample time” to review the testimony; no vote is scheduled.
“This is an outrage,” said Marci Hamilton, a lawyer who has represented victims in lawsuits against the Roman Catholic Church. “In the end, it’s just some powerful men standing between (victims) and justice.”
Testimony before the committee was weighted heavily with witnesses saying the retroactive provision was unconstitutional, advocates claimed. Greenleaf said advocates were told they could bring other witnesses.
Hamilton, a witness and a senior fellow in religion in the University of Pennsylvania’s Fox Leadership Program, testified that the retroactive provision is constitutional.
“Rep. Rozzi is claiming that we stacked the deck against him, but that’s not true,” said Greenleaf’s aide Patrick Cawley. “He (Rozzi) refused to accept the scope of the hearing, which was the Pennsylvania Constitution and Pennsylvania Supreme Court cases.”
The provision allowing retroactive lawsuits is unconstitutional, Solicitor General Bruce Castor, top aide to Attorney General Kathleen Kane, told the panel.
“The General Assembly in its zeal cannot overrule a constitutional right,” Castor testified.
“Apart from that provision, our office wholeheartedly supports the legislation,” he testified.
Stephen Neuberger, a Delaware attorney who represents victims and whose firm opposed Greenleaf’s in 2008, said at a rally after the hearing that Castor also had a conflict he failed to disclose. Castor, when asked Monday, said he was “a partner of Senator Greenleaf’s from 2008 to 2013.
“And so what? I was a shareholder and director of the firm, and as such, Senator Greenleaf and I were colleagues and friends,” Castor said.
Hamilton said the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has not ruled on retroactivity. She suggested the legislature could pass a law and allow the court to decide.
Hamilton called lifting statutes of limitations “a civil rights movement for children.”
The grand jury report found that hundreds of kids were abused by as many as 50 priests over four decades in the Altoona-Johnstown Catholic Diocese. Kane’s office oversaw the grand jury report. There were no state indictments at the time because statute of limitations had expired or some victims were no longer living or willing to testify, officials said.
Two weeks later, Kane’s office charged three former Franciscan Friar leaders with allegedly allowing a known predator friar to abuse scores of children.
The Philadelphia Diocese recently launched a verbal assault on the legislation, with Archbishop Charles Chaput calling the bill “unjust” and deeply “misleading.” He said it doesn’t treat victims equally, making claims retroactive against churches and private institutions but not on public institutions.
Kane, whose law license is suspended because she faces charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in Montgomery County, said she could not offer an opinion on the bill’s constitutionality and tasked Castor with doing so.
Kane’s trial is scheduled for August.
Brad Bumsted is state Capitol reporter for the Tribune-Review. He can be reached at 717-787-1405 or [email protected].