The advance of a Pennsylvania bill that would lift the statutes of limitation for civil lawsuits concerning child sexual abuse enters an important new phase next week.
The state Senate Judiciary Committee begins hearings at 10 a.m. Monday, June 13 in Harrisburg to examine the bill’s constitutionality under state law.
HB 1947 passed overwhelmingly in the House, 180-15, in April. The bill would allow individuals up to age 50 to sue private institutions including churches, other religious congregations, youth organizations and sports leagues retroactively for abuse that occurred years or decades ago, and for unlimited damages.
Public institutions such as school districts could also be sued but only for cases in the future, not in the past. Settlement damages would be capped at $250,000 per plaintiff or $1 million in total related claims for state agencies, and $500,000 for local and county agencies, including school districts.
The Catholic Church in Pennsylvania, consisting of 3.2 million Catholics in eight Latin-rite dioceses and Byzantine and Ukrainian Catholic dioceses, would likely be hardest hit among private institutions.
The church’s public policy arm, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference (PCC), has mobilized members of its Catholic Advocacy Network and urged them to contact their senators in opposition to HB 1947.
Tens of thousands of email messages and phone calls have been sent to legislators by Catholics statewide, according the conference’s director of outreach, Joelle Shea.
A PCC “action alert” invites a person to send a form message to Gov. Tom Wolf, Lt. Gov. Mike Stack and one’s state senator.
The message reads: “I strongly urge you to oppose legislation that would retroactively nullify the statute of limitations for filing a civil lawsuit alleging childhood sexual abuse, especially if it does not apply to private and public institutions equally. Pennsylvania’s 3 million Catholics cannot afford to defend their parishes and Catholic schools from expensive and unfair lawsuits that are 20, 30 or 40 years old, long after the perpetrator and possible witnesses have died or clear evidence is gone. Bankrupting the parishes, schools, and ministries of today’s Catholics that benefit our community will not provide healing nor protect children.
“Sexual abuse is a serious crime that affects every institution and community in Pennsylvania, public and private. Because of its gravity, it needs to be dealt with comprehensively and fairly. Vote no on unfair statute of limitations amendments.”
Archbishop Charles Chaput on Monday released a letter and supporting documents outlining what he called the “serious dangers” the bill poses to the church. Parish pastors along with the archbishop urged parishioners to contact their senators to oppose the retroactive provision of the bill.
One provision of it that would abolish the statutes of limitation on criminal prosecutions of child sexual abuse in the future is not opposed by the church.
The archbishop’s letter and the pastors’ push apparently have been motivating Catholics in the archdiocese to contact legislators.
Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, who represents parts of Bucks and Montgomery counties within the archdiocese, is also chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
A spokesman in his district office confirmed that staffers have received many calls and messages, without stating how many, both in support and in opposition to HB 1947.
“All week we’ve had a steady stream of calls from both sides,” said spokesman Aaron Zappia. “Definitely a lot of Catholics” have called since the pastors’ announcements last weekend and the archbishop’s letter was released on Monday, the spokesman said.
The bill must be approved by the Judiciary Committee before it comes up for a vote on the Senate floor.
If the bill does come up for a floor vote, amendments might alter some of its provisions. If so, the Senate and House versions of the bill would need to be reconciled by a committee of members from both chambers before the bill is sent to the governor.
Gov. Wolf has indicated he may sign such a bill, depending on its final form.
But for now, the 14 senators on the Judiciary Committee are just beginning to grapple with questions of the law’s constitutionality as response from both sides of the debate continues to heat up.