Kristen Woolley (far right), a survivor of child sex abuse, decried the Senate Judiciary Committee vote that on Tuesday stripped a retroactive measure from a proposed bill. Woolley earlier this month rallied with other advocates of child sex abuse victims to push through House Bill 1947. Dan Gleiter, PennLive.com
Victims who were sexually abused as children decades ago have long looked to a change in the law for a shot at justice.
Those hopes were dashed on Tuesday with one swift vote from the Senate Judiciary Committee: By a 9-4 vote, the committee voted in favor of an amendment that eliminates from House Bill 1947 a measure that would have allowed victims of past sexual abuse to sue the perpetrators.
"My perpetrator sighs with relief knowing he got a free pass to continue to molest children. He will sleep well tonight," said Kristen Pfautz Woolley, a victim of child sex abuse and founder of Turning Point Women's Counseling & Advocacy Center in York. "The responsibility for every child that my perpetrator violates from this day forward lies squarely on the shoulders of the Senate Judiciary Committee members. I hope they can sleep tonight."
I hope they can't sleep tonight. I hope they don't sleep until December.
The measure was widely one of the last hopes for victims of clergy sex abuse in Pennsylvania. With few exceptions, most victims out of the abuse scandals in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese have timed out of the legal system due to expired statutes.
Hundreds of adults who were sexually abused as children by priests in Philadelphia and the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese will be watching the House this week as it takes up a bill that would reform the statute of limitations.
John Salveson, who for years fought to have the priest who molested him as a teenager removed from the priesthood, said he was disappointed with the committee's action.
A survivor of clergy sex abuse, John Salveson, president of The Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse, said he was deeply disappointed with the newly amended House Bill 1947, which was stripped of its retroactive measure.
"I believe the retroactivity aspects of the bill are by far the most effective tools to expose predators, so their removal is deeply disappointing and effectively remove any meaningful impact of the bill," said Salveson, president of the Foundation to Abolish Sex Abuse.
Salveson was particularly taken back by the bill's provision that shields institutions from a broader scope of the law.
As written the bill gives victims of child sex abuse an indefinite time frame in which to seek legal recourse against individuals, which in the case of clergy sex abuse cases, could mean bishops and priests. Institutions, however, would remain under the scope of the time frame written into the law, which cuts off civil action at the victim's 50th birthday.
"How many more grand jury reports do we need before we understand that the institutions are at the root of the problem?" Salveson said. "I am stunned that our senators are willing to listen to the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and agree to give the institutional church a free pass! This is backwards movement - more institutional protection than before HB 1947 was even drafted."
The leading voice in the General Assembly for victims admonished the Catholic Church for its efforts in defeating the retroactive measure from the bill.
"No doubt about it, Senator (Joseph) Scarnati was a hit man for the Catholic Church to come in here and protect pedophiles and protect the institution and leave the victims outside on the doorstep," said Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, who helped steer reform legislation in the House.
Scarnati, a Republican and Senate President Pro Tempore, successfully pushed for removal of the amendment on grounds that it would violate the state constitution.
"Clearly for me it boils down to constitutional issue," Scarnati said. "We had four well respected attorneys at the hearing one from the Attorney General's office. Clearly the issue of constitutionality rises above and beyond everything for me."
That's so much BS. Dozens of other states allow it and I don't hear anyone screaming that they are violating the constitution. You are either crooked or you are cowards. In any event, you are not fit to represent the people of Pennsylvania.
In the end, Scarnati had the majority support, with votes for the amendment from Senators Richard Alloway, Lisa Boscola, Patrick Brown, John Gordner, Guy Reschenthaler, Randy Vulakovich, Gene Yaw, Daylin Leach and John Eichelberger.
Like most members of the panel, Eichelberger, a Blair County Republican, argued that the bill - in its original language - would be unconstitutional. He said that as an attorney he could not support it as such.
"This amendment seems to thread the needle and allows more freedom," he said.
Vulakovich, an Allegheny County Republican, said he opposed turning the legislative process over to the courts. Proponents for the bill had argued that the courts would decide if the bill passed constitutional muster.
Leach, a Montgomery County Democrat, reiterated that the committee had an independent obligation to decide the constitutionality of the bill. He said revival of expired statute of limitations for some victims would potentially open up similar suits from others, for example, families whose children had been killed by drunk drivers.
That would be a bad thing?
"At the end of day it's hard to find a limiting principle as to when we say no to somebody when we say yes to some," he said.
The committee voted unanimously to move the amended bill to the full Senate.
Votes against the amendments were cast by: Senators Art Haywood, John Sabatina, Lawrence Farnese and John Rafferty.
His anger visible on his face, Rozzi chided was he said had been a win for the church and loss for victims.
"The bishops were given a free pass.. The perpetrators and police were given a free pass," said Rozzi, himself a victim of clergy sex abuse who used his own story to help push the reform legislation through the House. "What you saw here today was another free pass from the Senate of Pennsylvania to pedophiles and the institutions that protect them. When will victims get justice? When will victims get a free pass? It has never happened in this state."
Amy Hill, the spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, said the legislative group would "take a closer look" at the ramifications of the vote. "I can't say yet what it means for us," she said. "I can reiterate that no matter the final resolution with the legislation, the Catholic Church will keep its sincere commitment to the emotional and spiritual well-being of individuals who have been impacted by the crime of childhood sexual abuse, no matter how long ago the crime was committed."
C'mon Amy, that's BS and you know it. Do you think the bill was amended without the Catholic Church lobbying like crazy. Your words say one thing, your actions say something else. The PCC should be disgusted with themselves, everyone else is.
Hill said no institution was "more acutely aware of the harm, pain and anger" caused by child sexual abuse than the Roman Catholic Church. "The Church has repeatedly acknowledged its past mistakes and its role in the ongoing suffering experienced by survivors and their loved ones," she said.
Hundreds of children were sexually abused over a period of 40 years by priests or church leaders in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, a grand jury investigation has concluded.
Among its provisions as written at the moment, House Bill 1947 would going forward:
Eliminate all criminal statutes of limitations on most child sex abuse cases
extends the legal window for victims from 12 to 32 years after their 18th birthday;
waives sovereign immunity in cases of child abuse,
lowering the standard from gross negligence to negligence;
eliminates criminal conspiracy or solicitation statutes for those that facilitate offenses;
strips the retroactive component.
Specifically, the bill eliminates the time limitations on when victims can file civil suit against individuals going forward. In the context of the clergy sex abuse case, that means that, in the future, victims of child sex abuse would have indefinite time to file suit against individual church leaders or priests. The statute of limitations for lawsuits against the institution would expire at age 50.
Rozzi said that while the bill is sound prospectively speaking - it fails because it provides no retroactive measures for victims who had hoped to bring civil suits against predators.
"The reason that we were here was because of the Altoona-Johnstown grand jury report," Rozzi said. "Again these senators continue to run and hide from doing their job."
Woolley said she would continue to join other advocates in their fight to open a two-year civil window that would allow time-barred victims the opportunity to identify hidden child predators.
"I pledge to continue to fight to protect children. I will sleep tonight," she said.