Several of Cumberland County’s state legislators find themselves in the minority this week as the highly publicized bill on clergy abuse victims’ restitution moves through the state Legislature.
The House of Representatives voted Monday on two high-profile amendments to Senate Bill 261, passing a final version Tuesday with a vote of 173-21.
State Reps. Dawn Keefer, R-Dillsburg, and Will Tallman, R-Adams County, who both represent parts of Cumberland County, voted against the amendment written by state Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, which ultimately passed. They also voted against the final version of the bill, which included Rozzi’s language.
The Rozzi amendment eliminates the statute of limitations on sex crimes, and creates a two-year retroactive window that temporarily lifts the statute of limitations on past child sexual abuse cases, allowing victims of abuse in the Catholic Church to bring forward lawsuits that would have otherwise expired.
The bill in its current form would give victims until age 50 to file lawsuits (currently limited to until age 30) and eliminate the statute of limitations entirely for criminal prosecutions.
Twenty-three representatives, including Keefer and Tallman, voted against the Rozzi language and instead favored another re-write of the bill, offered by Republican Rep. Paul Schemel, which would create a Truth and Restoration Fund to hear and compensate victims’ claims.
Proponents of the Schemel proposal, including several prominent Republicans, say that the plan would allow the state to give victims restitution without running afoul of the state’s constitution.
Section 1, Article 11 of the constitution has been interpreted to bar the Legislature from retroactively eliminating a means of legal defense, although whether this includes statutes of limitations is not a question that has previously come before the state Supreme Court.
Critics of the Schemel plan point out that the Truth and Restoration Fund and its associated commission could not compel the Catholic Church to participate, and the only guaranteed funding for the plan comes from the state, essentially foisting the cost of resolving the church’s misconduct onto Pennsylvania taxpayers if the dioceses don’t play ball.
Rep. Judy Ward, R-Blair County, also favored the Schemel amendment over the Rozzi version, and voted against final passage of the bill. Ward represents a district in Blair County, but is running for the Senate seat vacated by state Sen. John Eichelberger, which includes parts of western Cumberland County.
Carlisle’s legislator, Rep. Stephen Bloom, R-North Middleton, was one of a handful of lawmakers to vote for both the Schemel and Rozzi amendments. Bloom also voted for final passage Tuesday of the Rozzi version.
“I was willing to support [the Rozzi version] as a reasonable effort at compromise, in the hope of giving the victims some fair opportunity for civil justice, although I still have some reservations about the ultimate judicial resolution of the constitutionality question,” Bloom said.
“Although it had little chance for adoption, I thought the Schemel amendment was also a serious effort to provide the victims with a fair shot at reasonable compensation, but without incurring the risk of the judicial branch intervening to declare the whole thing unconstitutional and thus leaving the victims, once again, with no remedy,” Bloom said.
Tallman is not running for re-election, giving him no risk of electoral blow-back for voting against a measure that has received strident support from victim advocates.
Keefer is being challenged for her 92nd District seat by Democrat Shanna Danielson. Ward is contending for the 30th Senate District seat against Democrat Emily Best, who has already taken Ward to task, posting to Twitter that “my opponent stands on the side of protecting the institutions.”
The Senate’s top Republican, Sen. Joe Scarnati, has voiced support for the Schemel plan and questioned the constitutionality of the Rozzi language, leaving the ultimate fate of the bill unclear as the state Senate prepares to consider it.