HARRISBURG, Pa. — Pennsylvania’s attorney general and several lawmakers began ramping up efforts to apply public pressure Tuesday ahead of a debate in the state Legislature over giving victims of decades-old child sexual abuse another chance to file civil lawsuits.
Tuesday’s events at opposite ends of Pennsylvania, in Pittsburgh and suburban Philadelphia, were designed to marshal lawmakers’ support to enact recommendations in last month’s landmark grand jury report on child sexual abuse in Catholic dioceses.
“They can stand with the work done by the grand jury, or stand with the phony excuses created by institutions that Harrisburg has kowtowed to for so long,” Attorney General Josh Shapiro said Tuesday in a news conference at his office in Norristown, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported .
One of the grand jury’s recommendations is to create a two-year window for now-adult victims of child sexual abuse, including those abused by clergy, to file civil lawsuits after the statute of limitations on their cases ran out.
It is supported by Gov. Tom Wolf, Shapiro and Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, all Democrats. House Speaker Mike Turzai, a Republican, has said he expects his GOP-controlled chamber will approve a two-year window when it returns to session next week. Victims of child sexual abuse who are speaking out since the grand jury’s report also broadly support it.
But Catholic dioceses have long opposed giving adult victims another chance to sue. Some senators say they believe it is unconstitutional and its support in the Senate is uncertain.
Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said Tuesday the chamber’s Republicans are waiting to see what legislation emerges from the House. Corman said the chamber’s Republicans had not yet discussed the grand jury’s recommendations together as a group, and many rank-and-file Republicans have stayed silent publicly about it.
The nearly 900-page state grand jury report released in August said more than 300 Catholic priests had abused at least a thousand children over the past seven decades in six Pennsylvania dioceses. It also accused senior church officials, including the man who is now archbishop of Washington, D.C., of systematically covering up complaints. Most cases were between 1970 and 2000.
The grand jury’s report has propelled a fresh debate over changing the law in Pennsylvania, where one in four people are Catholic. Legislation has been simmering since 2016, after a prior grand jury report detailed allegations of the abuse of hundreds of children by more than 50 priests and others in the church over decades in a separate diocese.
Pennsylvania lawmakers have broadly agreed to eliminate the statute of limitations in criminal prosecutions of child sexual abuse, which currently goes up to a victim’s age of 50. They also have agreed to raise the time limit, from the victim’s age of 30 to 50, for a victim to sue an institution, such as a diocese or a school.
But the entrenched disagreement over giving victims another chance to sue, if they are now beyond their 30th birthday, has held up passage of a package of changes to the law.
Victims and victim advocates say suing Catholic dioceses is not strictly about getting money, but about using the civil court process to force church officials to hand over records revealing the identity of clergy who sexually abused children or helped cover it up.