State politicians seek cover for gutting statute reform

By Bill White (The Morning Call)
June 25, 2016

I wanted to begin this column with a great rant about politicians from an old "Monty Python" episode.

It's presented in the guise of an apology for some previous content and scrolls down the screen as a very-proper narrator reads it and "Pomp and Circumstance" plays.

I didn't have space for the whole thing — you can find it on YouTube — but here's an excerpt:

"We would like to apologize for the way in which politicians are represented in this programme. It was never our intention to imply that politicians are weak-kneed, political time-servers who are concerned more with their personal vendettas and private power struggles than the problems of government … nor to imply that they are squabbling little toadies without an ounce of concern for the vital social problems of today …"

I won't endorse some of the specific language in the rant — I wouldn't call anyone "crabby ulcerous little self-seeking vermin" — but the general sentiments fit my disgust with the state Senate Judiciary Committee, which has been hard at work fashioning an appropriate excuse for gutting a bill that would reform statutes of limitations for child sex abuse survivors. I'd have added something about subservience to powerful special interests.

House Bill 1947 has been the subject of intense lobbying by the Catholic Church and the insurance industry. Both stand to suffer financial hardship if the bill's most controversial provision, which would allow access to the courts for some child sex abuse victims blocked from civil suits by our present age limit of 30 and, in some cases, by the previous limit of 18. The rest of the bill, which eliminates the criminal statute of limitations altogether for future cases and raises the civil limit from 30 to 50 for future cases, probably will be allowed to survive.

Driven by a wave of public disgust after the latest state grand jury report about child abuse and cover-ups in the Catholic Church, the House finally allowed a statute-of-limitations bill to get out of committee and passed it overwhelmingly. But the bill still faced a familiar obstacle in the Judiciary Committee, led by Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, who had not been receptive to such bills in the past.

The problem the committee and the Senate faced: How to block the part of the bill that was most objectionable to powerful lobbyists while still giving the illusion of deep concern about the victims?

The first step took place recently in a hearing on the constitutionality of granting court access to victims who were past the age limit set by the present statute of limitations. "Hey, we can pretend we're doing the responsible thing by avoiding legislation that might be unconstitutional!"

Of course, our legislators have passed plenty of stuff that turned out to be unconstitutional, most recently a ridiculous gun law cooked up by the NRA. Lawmakers were perfectly content to let the courts sort that out, as they should do here.

In any event, Greenleaf fumbled this smoke screen by rigging the hearing so heavily in favor of lawyers — mostly hired by the church or with ties to Catholic institutions — who argued it was unconstitutional. Any pretense of even-handedness was further damaged by the revelation that Greenleaf's law firm had argued on behalf of a Catholic organization that a similar law was unconstitutional in Delaware. Since then, the committee has been hard at work on a way to remove retroactivity while appearing to provide a viable alternative for victims by letting older victims get around the statute if they can demonstrate there was "fraudulent concealment" of the crimes by church officials or others, as first reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The problem with that is … it never works. Constitutional law expert Marci Hamilton, the only witness who testified at the hearing that the bill is constitutional, told me it's clever, because it ends up protecting both the most powerful lobbyists against the bill while appearing to help some victims. The insurance industry is off the hook, because fraudulent concealment negates the insurance policies. And the Catholic Church is protected, Hamilton said, because under Pennsylvania's standard, no victim ever has won a fraudulent concealment case.

"What they're going to try to do," she said, "is strip out the retroactive version and then put in a do-nothing version."

My other problem with that approach is that the focus on fraudulent concealment makes all this, once again, about the Catholic Church, when the vast majority of victims were molested by family, family friends and others. They'll all be out of luck.

I'm told some committee members also are working on other amendments to make it look as though they're protecting the survivors they'll be shafting. The bottom line is that from a standpoint of unmasking predators and offering justice to victims, none of them will be better than HB 1947 as written.

The vote is expected this week, so I urge you to let committee members know that you won't be fooled by the cheap tricks of, in Python parlance, weak-kneed political time-servers. For you Lehigh Valleyites, the closest committee member is Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton.

Tell them you want a bill written for survivors of child sex abuse, not for bishops and insurance executives.