Pa. House panel adds “poison pill” to child sex abuse bill

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HARRISBURG — In a move that ultimately could doom the measure, a key state House committee Tuesday broadened a child sex abuse bill to allow victims who sue to pursue potentially limitless damages from both private and governmental institutions, including public-school districts.

Under the amended bill, which sparked some debate among members, government entities would lose elements of sovereign immunity, exposing them to large liability awards. It is attached to a new version of a controversial bill that died last year amid battles waged by victim advocates, the Catholic Church, and the insurance lobby.

Tuesday’s vote to lift caps on the amount of money sex abuse litigants can collect in lawsuits against governmental entities is viewed by some supporters of expanding child sex-abuse victims’ rights as a “poison pill.”

That is because in at least one other state, Colorado, legislation to expose government institutions to lawsuits unleashed the opposition of the powerful school boards association and failed.  Archibishop Charles Chaput, then archbishop in Denver, was key in defeating that Colorado effort.

The issue of capping public civic payouts was not part of last year’s legislative fight in Harrisburg. That bill died over a different controversial provision: One that sought to let adult victims of decades-old abuse to sue private institutions. That provision is expected to be added to the House bill in the weeks ahead.

The amendment by the committee Tuesday removes much of the shield that last year’s legislation put in place for public entities.

Last year’s legislation would have allowed lawsuits only in the event of “gross negligence.” The bill amended by the House Tuesday is a Senate bill approved earlier this year to expand the rights of victims to sue. The Senate bill reduced the threshold for suing public entities to just “negligence.”

That, combined with the House committee’s decision to lift liability limits, significantly exposes institutions that had more protection under last year’s bill.

“The intent of this amendment is to make a level playing field,” said Rep. Joseph Petrarca (D., Westmoreland), who sponsored the cap amendment. “What we’re trying to do is stop this behavior of what’s going on with sexual predators.”

But Rep. Rick Saccone (R., Allegheny) said the removal of stronger sovereign immunity protections, and of the caps on damages, would be unfair to taxpayers.

“I think we should concentrate on going after the perpetrators and make them as accountable as humanly possible,” he said. “The highest offense, the most egregious act that someone could commit is these types of things, and I think they should be held personally accountable, not the taxpayer.”

The bill, which passed the committee by a 22-5 vote, is expected to hit the House floor later this month. Victim advocates will fight for language allowing adult victims the right to sue for what happened to them decades ago.

The bill approved by the committee retained Senate language to eliminate the criminal statute of limitations for future cases of child sex abuse. But it did not accept the Senate bill’s total elimination of the civil statute.. The Senate bill would have placed no time limit on when future victims could sue for child abuse they suffered.

Instead, the House committee chaired by Ron Marsico (R., Dauphin), changed the bill to give future victims only up to the age of 50 to file lawsuits. Currently, victims have only until age 30 to do so.

A year ago, the House overwhelmingly passed a child sex abuse bill that contained retroactive rights for people up to age 50 to sue. Their 180-15 vote came last year at the height of a clergy abuse scandal in the Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

But that controversial provision was removed from the legislation in the Senate, after an intense push by advocates for the church and insurance industry, who questioned its constitutionality and warned that it could unfairly punish struggling congregations.

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