HARRISBURG, Pa. — Pennsylvania’s top legal office told lawmakers Monday that it is unconstitutional to change state law to retroactively give victims of child sexual abuse more time to sue, although some lawmakers said they remain willing to support it.
A packed three-hour Senate Judiciary Committee hearing came against the backdrop of Roman Catholic Church scandals and a renewed push in Pennsylvania and other states to relax laws that prevent some child sexual abuse victims from suing for damages.
With victims of child sexual abuse looking on, Solicitor General Bruce L. Castor Jr. told senators that case law renders such a retroactive provision unconstitutional in Pennsylvania.
Castor was speaking for the state attorney general’s office after Attorney General Kathleen Kane, whose law license was suspended by the state Supreme Court last year, urged the panel in her seven-minute testimony to “get it right.”
The provision would have the effect of allowing child sexual abuse victims to file civil damages lawsuits, even if the window in current law that allows such a lawsuit had closed. It is opposed by the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania, which represents for-profit insurers.
It is contained in a wider bill to raise the age limit to give victims of child sexual abuse more time to sue and more time for prosecutors to bring charges against perpetrators. The bill passed the House overwhelmingly in April.
Under current law, people who say they were abused as children can bring civil lawsuits until they turn 30. The bill would raise that to 50. People who are over 30, but not yet 50, would be allowed to sue.
Senators had mixed opinions afterward.
Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Blair, said he is not willing to vote for something he believes to be unconstitutional after most of the testimony released by the committee — including four out of six law professors — called it unconstitutional.
“I’m willing to look at a few other things, but the testimony that it was unconstitutional was pretty conclusive,” Eichelberger said.
Sen. John Rafferty, R-Montgomery, said that he would support it and that the question of constitutionality in a “case of first impression” is best left to the courts to decide.
A March 1 grand jury report from Kane’s office on a scandal in the Altoona-Johnstown diocese had recommended that lawmakers abolish the statute of limitations for sexual offenses against minors and urged them to suspend the civil statute of limitations on sexual abuse claims.
“Why are we hearing today pushback that it’s not constitutional?” said Rafferty, who is running to succeed Kane as attorney general.
Castor, who Kane named as solicitor general later in March, replied that he had not been aware of the extent of the state constitution’s “remedies clause” before he was ordered by Kane to review it.
Bruce Antkowiak, a law professor at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, said a minority of states have found that reviving the ability of child sexual abuse victims to sue is in line with their constitutions. Most have not. It is also constitutional in federal courts, Antkowiak said.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, would not say whether he supports the provision, and said he will canvass the 13 other committee members on where they stand on that provision.
The proposal to lift the statute of limitations has drawn strong opposition from Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, who recently sent a letter to all 219 archdiocese parishes urging parishioners to ask their senators to vote against it.
Explaining why the archdiocese opposes the bill, Chaput wrote that potential lawsuits would unfairly affect schools and parishes that had nothing to do with the long-ago abuse. He also said the financial ramifications could cripple the ministry.
“The problem with HB 1947 is its prejudicial content. It covers both public and religious institutions – but in drastically different and unjust ways. The bill fails to support all survivors of abuse equally, and it’s a clear attack on the Church, her parishes and her people,” the archbishop wrote in his June 6 letter.
He charged that the bill poses “serious dangers” to Catholic parishes and ministries.
“In other states where similar legislation passed, local parishes have been sued, resulting in parish and school closures and charity work being crippled,” the archbishop wrote.
The proposed legislation could “erase the sacrifices of generations of faithful Catholics who have done nothing wrong,” he noted.
(Crux Staff contributed to this report.)