Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Lehigh/Monroe/Northhampton) has introduced bills every year since at least 2005. According to her office, none has ever made it on the agenda or to a public hearing. In 2007, former Rep. Lisa Bennington (D-Allegheny) introduced HB 1137, an SOL bill known as the Child Victim’s Act of Pennsylvania. It was referred to the Judiciary Committee in May of that year, where it died of neglect, along with the rest. Sickened by the behind-the-scene politicking over SOL reform, Bennington deserted Harrisburg after only two years to go back to the relatively pleasant industry of divorce mediation.
After introducing the legislation for three consecutive years, Bishop’s HB 832 has been stalled, along with McGeehan’s HB 878, gathering dust on the not-to-do list of the House Judiciary Committee for almost a year.
Advocates point to Rep. Ron Marsico (R-Dauphin) and Rep. Thomas Caltagirone (D-Berks), the majority and minority chairs of the Judiciary Committee, respectively, as roadblocks. “I spoke to bills 878 and 832 when they were introduced by McGeehan and Bishop,” says Sister Maureen Turlish, a South Philly-born-and-raised Catholic nun and staunch SOL advocate who played a key role in Delaware SOL reform. “The problem seems to be that the House Chair Ron Marsico … won’t let them into discussion.”
Even McGeehan’s office says they’ve been frozen out by Marsico.
“We have, together with Rep. Bishop, written both Marsico and minority chairman Thomas R. Caltagirone (D-Berks) several times asking them to move the bills, we have no written response back to date,” says a spokesperson from McGeehan’s office. “This SOL issue has been vetted in one form of another for many years … and we just feel that it’s time to have a hearing. If there are arguments, then let them come out in the hearing. But at least give the advocates of the bill the opportunity to get it out there and give victims the chance to present their point of view.”
Among grassroots organizations advocating for reform, Marsico’s become a villain. “Our group has pounded him quite steadily since the fall to try to get these bills put on the agenda,” says Maureen Martinez, co-founder of Justice4PAKids, an activist organization put together last year explicitly to advocate for SOL reform and child sex abuse education in Pa. In a letter to Hamilton, Marsico explained his point of view. It read in part, “What may seem to be a prudent response in the wake of a well-publicized criminal allegation may have implications that undermine other important values for which our Commonwealth stands.”
Martinez isn’t buying it. “We’ve also talked to a lot of judiciary committee members and they say there’s nothing they can do. He’s completely road-blocking the bills by not even putting them on the agenda. That’s just not right. We live in a democracy and one man has so much control that he’s the only guy who sets the agenda?”
What advocates really think though, is that the Catholic Church, via the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, is setting the agenda.
Former Rep. Bennington says that after her brief run through the SOL spin cycle, she only has two words to say about the debacle: “Catholic Conference.”
A report issued last fall by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life indicates that on a national level, the amount of money religious lobbyists spend to influence policy has increased steadily and dramatically in the last few decades.
The lobbying arm of the Catholic Church is the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, the public affairs arm of Pennsylvania’s Catholic bishops and the Catholic dioceses of Pennsylvania. Though it is not possible to know exactly how much money the PA Catholic Conference has spent lobbying against SOL reform in the state, the report reveals that in 2009, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops spent $26,662,111 influencing national policy, second only to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The USCCB disputes the report’s claims.
Though the PA Catholic Conference, for the most part, stays publicly quiet on the matter of statue of limitation—choosing instead to tweet and post newsletters focusing on school vouchers, abortion and contraception—advocates report they’ve encountered their representatives all over Harrisburg, “stealthily” campaigning against reform.
“[Reform] would mean implicating bishops and cardinals and monsignors, and that’s why they’re fighting so viciously over this, and it is vicious,” says Tammy Lerner, vice president of The Foundation to Abolish Sex Abuse. Lerner says she met with the Pa. Catholic Conference across the table at one point.
“There’s no talking with them, the answers they will give you are canned from their lawyers, they don’t waver off it ... and they are not willing to take any responsibility.” A sex-abuse survivor who got involved with the cause in 2001, Lerner says negotiating SOL reform back then was like playing a game of “whac-a-mole. You had to keep squashing down the objections to it … at every turn there was a new strategy to try to kill it, or try to gut it.”
PA Catholic Conference spokesperson Amy Hill declined to discuss SOL reform with PW, saying it was a “sensitive issue.” However, Hill emailed a prepared statement, which reads in part: “Over the years Pennsylvania increased the statute of limitations on sex abuse cases from age 20 to 50 for criminal prosecutions and age 20 to 30 for civil actions. The PCC did not oppose these bills. However, the Catholic Church does not support a retroactive suspension of civil statutes of limitations creating a ‘window’ in cases involving the sexual abuse of minors from many years ago.
“Opening a ‘window’ on the statute of limitations for damages claims against non-perpetrators is flawed because statutes of limitations exist to ensure a just verdict can be reached. Over time, memories fade, evidence is lost or never found, and in many instances perpetrators or witnesses may be deceased. The passage of time makes it nearly impossible for a Church or any other organization to defend itself against allegations from 30, 40 and 50 years ago. For similar reasons we do not support the proposal to abolish the statute of limitations in both criminal and civil cases of childhood sexual abuse from this point forward.”
In the John Jay study on clergy and sex abuse commissioned by the U.S. Bishops, the writers went to great lengths to emphasize that the vast majority of sex abuse by the clergy was in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. So, while on one hand, the church admits there are many survivors abused in this era, they argue the abuse would be impossible to prove in court. Turlish says that point is moot. “I defend anyone’s right to due process, but it’s the plaintiff’s responsibility in the civil case to provide proof. So if the people are all dead, if there are no records ... the case won’t go any place.”
While the statement doesn’t mention the fear of financial cost of settling lawsuits, that is the No. 1 argument advocates say they have heard from Catholic Conference lobbyists on the hill.
According to the John Jay report, the sex-abuse related costs totaled $573 million, with $219 million covered by insurance companies.
PW's Summer Guide 2015