Shaun Dougherty

Shaun Dougherty talks to a reporter on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020, at The Tribune-Democrat offices.

HARRISBURG – The chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee says that moving a bill to amend the Constitution to create a window of time for lawsuits by adult survivors of child abuse will be a top priority when lawmakers return to the Capitol next month.

The bill has already passed once, but because it’s a proposed constitutional amendment, it must pass unchanged a second time before it goes on the ballot for voters statewide.

State Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, announced Tuesday that she plans to introduce legislation that will mirror House Bill 963, which passed both chambers of the General Assembly in 2019.

The measure was the compromise plan developed by lawmakers to provide a path to justice in the courtroom for survivors in the wake of a landmark 2018 statewide grand jury investigation that exposed decades of cover-ups by Catholic Church leaders.

In the wake of that report, the state successfully changed the statute of limitations moving forward – Act 87 of 2019 eliminated the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution of sex crimes against children and gave survivors until the age of 55 to file civil lawsuits.

After months of stalemate over whether the state should change the law retroactively to help survivors of priest abuse, lawmakers backed HB 963, which makes the retroactive change by amending the Constitution to overcome concerns that a retroactive change, otherwise, would be unconstitutional.

“By passing identical legislation in two consecutive sessions, we are ensuring that this change to the statute of limitations occurs in a constitutionally-sound manner. This legislation is a top priority and will be considered at the first meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee next year,” Baker said.

“Arbitrary age thresholds and time limitations established years ago are no longer sufficient to deal with the horrific and widespread cases of abuse that continue to surface,” Baker said.

State Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair, who authored HB 963, said he hopes that if the Senate quickly moves on the legislation, the House will follow suit. That would mean the question of whether to open the two-year window for lawsuits could be on the ballot in the April primary, he said.

“The historic nature of this legislation will allow the people of Pennsylvania to very soon make their voices heard to repair the damage of decades of abuse,” he said.

Shaun Dougherty, a survivor of priest abuse from Johnstown who has been one of the most outspoken advocates for changing the law, said that word that the Legislature is poised to move on the issue early in 2021 is welcome news and may bring some needed hope to survivors who’ve been fighting, thus far, unsuccessfully, to get the change.

“The holidays can be a crap time for survivors,” Dougherty said.

The retirement of Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, suggests there may be an easier path to getting the legislation passed, Dougherty said.

“There is no question” Scarnati had been one of the main opponents standing in the way of the legislation, he said.

Even so, Dougherty said that he’s still worried that things could go wrong.

“Pennsylvania politics are ugly. Anything can derail this,” he said.

The move to potentially allow survivors to file lawsuits comes after most of the state’s Catholic dioceses put in place compensation funds to settle many claims.

Seven of Pennsylvania’s eight Catholic dioceses set up compensation funds to settle claims with survivors of childhood sex abuse by priests – paying out at least $133 million to 973 survivors, according to reports released by the dioceses.

By diocese, those funds have paid out:

• Allentown Diocese: $15.85 million to 96 survivors

• Erie Diocese: $6 million to 50 survivors

• Greensburg Diocese: $4.4 million to 57 survivors

• Harrisburg Diocese: $13 million to 111 survivors

• Philadelphia Archdiocese: $50.6 million to 222 survivors

• Pittsburgh Diocese: $19 million to 224 survivors.

• Scranton Diocese: $24.5 million to 213 survivors.

The Altoona-Johnstown Catholic Diocese did not set up a compensation fund for victims.

Dougherty said the fact that the Altoona-Johnstown diocese hasn’t offered a compensation fund makes the proposed change to the Constitution even more important to survivors in that region.

“Do I feel I need to be compensated? Hell, yes. But I didn’t get into it for compensation,” he said. “I should have the right to take the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese to court and to depose people,” he said.

Even in other dioceses, not all survivors have taken the deals from the compensation funds.

“We already are in receipt of half a dozen new lawsuits, any one of which could severely cripple the diocese,” Harrisburg Bishop Ronald Gainer said at the time the diocese sought bankruptcy protection.

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

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