Shaun Dougherty of Johnstown is interviewed prior to boarding a bus Monday, April 3, 2017, and heading to Harrisburg for a rally to support extending the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse cases in Pennsylvania and making the measure retroactive for past incidents.

HARRISBURG — Adult survivors of sexual abuse by priests hope that they will get a chance to share their perspectives at an October hearing scheduled by the Senate Judiciary Committee to examine whether or how to change the statute of limitations law regarding when adults can sue over childhood abuse.

The judiciary committee has scheduled three hours of testimony on Oct. 2 at the Capitol to explore the controversy over whether to change the state’s statute of limitations, according to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne County.

The hearing is one of a series scheduled in the coming weeks to examine controversial issues. Others will look at possible gun law changes and the policies used to determine when inmates should be paroled from state prison, Baker said Friday.

“This hearing is intended to see if there are ways to bridge the philosophical and policy differences. Obviously, a proposal for a constitutional amendment is a significant new element in the debate,” Baker said.

She didn’t disclose who would be called to testify, but said the hearing will include “a range of perspectives.” 

“The hope is that all sides will be offering ideas for breaking the deadlock, rather than simply rehashing the standard arguments and locked-in positions,” she said.

Shaun Dougherty, a Johnstown man who was molested by a Catholic priest as a child, said he’d be glad to talk to the committee.

“For the longest time, victims have been crying out for hearings, but we’ve been blocked out of this process,” he said.

“I’m really appreciative that Sen. Baker is holding the hearing,” Dougherty said.

Under current Pennsylvania law, adult victims have to file a lawsuit before they turn 30. Advocates have argued that this is inadequate because most survivors don’t feel capable of coming forward to seek justice until later in adulthood.

A grand jury report released in 2018 found that Catholic leaders in six dioceses – Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton – had covered up the abuse of 300 priests. The grand jury noted that almost none of the victims can sue based on the report’s findings because of the statute of limitations. As a result, one of the key findings attached to the grand jury’s report was that the state law should be changed to allow for such lawsuits.

Gov. Tom Wolf has also called on the General Assembly to send him legislation to do just that, but thus far, all bills aimed at reforming the statute of limitations have stalled.

Advocates for changing the law to help adult survivors of child sex abuse seem divided over what to make of the newest move in the state Senate.

“Hearings are easier to arrange than votes. I applaud Senator Baker for scheduling hearings. But I do not see that the politics have changed,” said Marci Hamilton, CEO and academic director for Child USA, a Philadelphia based organization that studies efforts to reform the statute of limitations laws across the country.

Dougherty said he hopes that the hearing signals movement in the Senate.

“I hope they are not doing this just to appease the victims, we need real change,” he said.

The state House last fall passed legislation that would have eliminated the criminal statute of limitations moving forward and would have opened a retroactive window to allow for lawsuits in cases where the statute of limitations had expired. The state Senate didn’t take up the bill before the end of the 2017-18 legislative session. Senate Repulbican leaders have repeatedly insisted that they don’t think that creating an opportunity for people to sue when the stature of limitations in their cases has expired is Constitutional.

Last spring, the state House passed legislation that would have also allowed adult victims to sue by amending the state Constitution to make it clear that a window for lawsuits can be opened for adult survivors of child sex abuse. The Senate hasn’t taken up that legislation either.

In an interview over the summer, Baker said that she planned to hold the hearing because few members of the Judiciary Committee were on that committee the last time it explored the issue. The Senate judiciary committee last took up the issue in June of 2016 – three months after a grand jury released its findings that the Altoona-Johnstown Catholic Diocsse covered up the abuse of 50 priests.

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.

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