Abuse report spurs push for change

Statute of limitations at heart of issues

Lawmakers pushing to change the state’s statute of limitations laws may have had their hopes dashed last week, but many are pushing for piecemeal reforms in the wake of a grand jury report that revealed widespread abuse and a massive coverup in the Roman Catholic Church.

Bills to change abuse laws and make it easier for victims to seek compensation have moved in fits and starts since 2016, when the Office of the Attorney General released a report on abuse in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown. Local legislators have been split on some proposals, and the most controversial — retroactively allowing victims to sue those currently protected under the statute of limitations — remains stalled.

That delay could be indefinitely extended after Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, said Wednesday that the plan wouldn’t pass constitutional muster.

“Many survivors continue to advocate for legislation, which would include a retroactive component,” Scarnati said in a written statement. “While I fully appreciate their passion for this issue, it does not change the unconstitutionality of the reviver in light of Pennsylvania’s Remedies Clause in our constitution, which prohibits a retroactive change to civil and criminal statute of limitations.”

Several local lawmakers challenged the constitutionality of the statute of limitations change in 2016, when their colleagues first raised the issue in light of the Altoona-Johnstown sexual abuse report. Because the reports cover abuse decades after the fact, many of those in the clergy who carried out the abuse — or those who protected them — can no longer be sued in civil court.

When the state House passed a bill to allow for retroactive lawsuits, just 15 representatives — including Rep. Judy Ward, R-Hollidaysburg; Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford; and Rep. John McGinnis, R-Altoona — voted against it. All three cited constitutional concerns.

Ward, now seeking the 30th District state Senate seat held by Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., R-Blair, did not return a message at her office seeking comment. But in 2016, she said she was bombarded with angry phone calls accusing her of “protecting child molesters” — attacks that underscore the deeply personal reactions to the grand jury reports.

The two candidates seeking to replace Ward in the House have both called for strict new laws, although neither has explicitly backed retroactive lawsuits.

Jim Gregory, the Republican candidate for the 80th House District, said he would back all four legislative recommendations in the latest state report, including a longer statute of limitations and tougher penalties for those who fail to report abuse.

“One recommendation, opening a two-year civil window for victims that are prohibited by the statute of limitations from suing for civil damages, is controversial,” Gregory said in a written statement. “It has been debated for too long with some legislators believing the provision violates our state constitution.”

In light of the controversy, Gregory said, he will back a constitutional amendment to extend the period in which civil claims can be filed.

Gregory’s Democratic opponent, Laura Burke, largely backed the report’s recommendations in an

Aug. 26 statement. She said she backs legislation rather than a full constitutional amendment, but expressed similar concerns on the effects of open retroactive lawsuits.

“Some of the church’s money comes from collections and donations of its parishioners who were primarily innocent bystanders and sometimes victims themselves,” Burke wrote. “We have to think about the negative impact to innocent people, which wholesale retroactivity may pose.”

Locals serving in the state Legislature have already moved to adopt some of the recommended legal changes.

State Rep. Frank Burns, D-Johnstown, is set to add a new bill to a growing list targeting church abuse as a renewed session in Harris­burg approaches.

Burns’ proposal — submitted last month as a memo to colleagues amid the Legislature’s summer break — would mandate disclaimers in non-disclosure agreements. The issue came to the fore in recent weeks amid support from the grand jury.

Confidentiality agreements, sometimes used to ensure participants’ silence after civil settlements, do not extend to cooperation with police or criminal investigators. But many signatories don’t know that, Burns said, or worry that they will be open to lawsuits if they work with investigators.

“The recent statewide grand jury report revealed widespread sexual abuse of children in Catholic churches across the Commonwealth. It also described a ‘playbook for concealing the truth’ employed by the church, which sometimes included secret financial settlements aimed at silencing victims,” Burns wrote. “While a non-disclosure clause in a settlement does not prevent victims from complying with a subpoena to testify in court, the grand jury report found many victims did not know the limits of non-disclosure clauses.”

Under Burns’ proposal, all confidentiality clauses would have to include a note that cooperation with authorities would not be covered. It would also allow child sex abuse victims to freely discuss past abuse, even in civil cases that would otherwise be covered by confidentiality deals.

Similar bills have been passed into law in other states, affecting ongoing sexual abuse cases like the “Me Too” movement that has brought down Hollywood figures, politicians and business leaders. A recent law in California, for example, removes confidentiality protections covering felony sexual assault and child abuse allegations.

“These clarifications were recommended by the grand jury and are necessary to ensure victims know that they can talk to law enforcement or testify against their abuser,” Burns wrote.

New proposals have joined the statute of limitations debate: One would increase penalties for those who fail to report sex abuse, while another would place sharper rules on so-called mandated reporters, who are required by their jobs to report suspected abuse.

Rep. Todd Stephens, R-North Wales, cited the words of the grand jury report in his own plan to raise penalties for those who remain silent: “Now there is a new, higher penalty for an ongoing failure to report continuing sexual abuse. After looking at that law, though, we’re concerned that the new language might not be clear enough to cover all the covering up we have seen.”