Key Change in Abuse Law Held in House Exclusive
Bill Would Open a One-Year " Window" for Victims to Bring Civil Suits, Even Though the Statutes of Limitations Have Expired

By Dave Janoski
Times Leader [Pennsylvania]
July 22, 2006

Ten months after a scathing grand jury report on child abuse by priests in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia recommended several changes in state law, those recommendations are working their way through the state General Assembly.

But the bill, considered the "linchpin" of the jury's recommendations, remains stuck in a House committee. That bill would open a one-year "window" for victims of child abuse to bring civil suits, even though the statutes of limitations have expired, in some cases decades ago.

"The progress is very disappointing," said John Salveson, media relations liaison for the Philadelphia chapter of SNAP the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "I think it's due to the fact that there is strong opposition."

The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, which represents the state's 10 Roman Catholic dioceses, is opposed to the window bill, arguing it would produce lawsuits that would be impossible to defend because witnesses and alleged abusers might be dead.

Conference spokeswoman Amy Beisel said Pennsylvania's dioceses are working to redress past wrongs and prevent future abuse.

"Every diocese in Pennsylvania has extensive programs to reach out to victims, to give them what they need, to come up with restitution for something that went wrong a long time ago."

Last September, the Philadelphia grand jury reported it had substantiated allegations against 63 Philadelphia priests dating back to 1967. But the jury expressed frustration about statutes of limitations that barred criminal charges or lawsuits against 56 surviving priests and the diocesan officials who, the jury alleged, covered up the abuse and allowed accused priests to continue serving in schools and parishes.

A Times Leader investigation of the Scranton Diocese concluded earlier this month that local church officials' approach to abuse allegations often paralleled those in Philadelphia. Twenty-five priests in the Scranton Diocese have been accused of sexual contact with minors since 1950, the diocese acknowledges, yet many of those priests were allowed to continue serving in local parishes and schools.

The local diocese is fighting two lawsuits by alleged victims who say they were abused decades ago, but argue for exceptions to the statute of limitations.

Kathy McDonnell, chief of the legislative unit in the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office and legislative liaison for the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, said the grand jury report prodded legislators to propose a number of bills that would:

Lengthen the statute of limitations on criminal child abuse charges from the victims' 30th birthday to his or her 50th birthday. This bill would apply only to new cases because courts have ruled that such changes in criminal statutes cannot be retroactive. The bill is now before the House Appropriations Committee.

Strengthen existing law that requires doctors, police and other professionals to report suspected child abuse to child protective agencies. Current law only mandates reporting when the professional comes in direct contact with a possible abuse victim. This bill would mandate reporting even if a professional learns of suspected abuse from a third party or other means. The House approved this bill in April. A version is now before a Senate committee.

Extend the scope of laws governing child endangerment so that supervisors of guardians or professionals who endanger children can be also be charged with endangerment if the supervisors prevent or interfere with the reporting of suspected child abuse. The House and Senate have passed separate versions of this legislation and are now working on a compromise version.

Increase penalties for indecent assault if the assault occurs more than once or if the assault involves particular sex acts. This bill has already become law.

McDonnell says all the bills are important, but the window bill, patterned after a California law that led to 800 lawsuits against dioceses in that state, is the "linchpin."

"That will give persons relief who have been excluded. These poor people are left without recourse at all."

A 2002 Pennsylvania law gives alleged victims of child abuse until age 30 to file a civil suit, but the law does not apply to cases before 2002.

"This is not just church-focused. This is a package that helps children, spearheaded by the inadequacies pointed out by the grand jury," McDonnell said.

She rejected arguments by the Catholic Conference and others who say the window bill will result in suits that are impossible to defend.

The courts "can weed out the bad cases," she said.

McDonnell said the executive committee of Pennsylvania Association of District Attorneys has endorsed the entire legislative package.

Luzerne County District Attorney Dave Lupas, who is not a member of the committee, did not return phone messages seeking his position on the bills.

Lackawanna County District Attorney Andrew Jarbola, who is also not a member, said he hadn't studied the bills, but he'd favor any legislation that gives victims "another recourse to go after the person who traumatized them years ago."

Three state legislators from Luzerne County ran the gamut when asked their positions on the "window" legislation.

State Rep. Phyllis Mundy, D-Kingston, said she felt such legislation was unfair to organizations that would find it impossible to defend against decades-old charges.

"I feel sorry for anyone who was victimized but I think our system of justice needs to be just."

State Rep. Thomas Tigue, D-Hughestown, supports the window legislation, arguing it helps victims who never reported abuse because of society's attitudes decades ago.

"Now that it's more public and it's more acceptable to come out, I don't think you're going to see people waiting so long.

"Before people were ashamed, now they see they were true victims."

State Rep. John Yudichak, D-Nanticoke, said he wants to "keep an open mind."

Yudichak said the window legislation, which makes no mention of any group, religious or otherwise, could put businesses at risk for incidents that happened 30 years ago.

"It may have unintended consequences well beyond the Catholic Church or other churches."

He said he wanted to see the final legislation before coming to a decision.

"We need to have those bills introduced. We need to have a discussion. We need to come up with some common ground that ensures these perpetrators and predators are locked up."

Michael Piecuch, chief counsel to the House Judiciary Committee, said he expects all of the bills to reach the floor in the fall.

But SNAP spokesman Salveson expressed frustration at the time the legislation is taking.

"When you have recommendations that come from a three-year grand jury, it seems to be a no-brainer you'd look at the recommendations very seriously."

While the state Catholic Conference has publicly opposed only the window bill, Salveson said he believes the group, which has 31 lobbyists in Harrisburg, is quietly stalling progress on the other bills too.

"If there is no opposition the only other logical explanation is the Assembly doesn't care about this issue and I don't believe that's true."

Conference spokeswoman Beisel said her group has officially taken no position on the other bills.

"I can't tell you what's been said or not said on the Hill. We have staff that talk to legislators all the time on lots of issues and what they discuss is not something I'm privy to."

Associate Editor/Investigative Dave Janoski can be reached at 829-7255.


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