HARRISBURG — The clash of religion and politics in Pennsylvania has legislative leaders of both parties in a quandary with no easy resolution.

At issue is justice and compensation for sex abuse victims who were violated by religious clerics and youth group leaders.

For many victims, justice and compensation is beyond reach because of existing statutes of limitations — laws that set time-limits to file criminal charges and civil suits after an alleged offense.

The issue virtually exploded 14 months ago with publication of a statewide grand jury report detailing alleged sexual abuse by priests in six of Pennsylvania’s eight Roman Catholic Dioceses. They include the diocese of Greensburg, Pittsburgh, Erie, Harrisburg, Philadelphia and Scranton.

Reports of similar abuse surfaced at a statewide convention of Jehovah’s Witness church leaders in Reading, Berks County, but received virtually no statewide media attention.

Moreover, the Boy Scouts of America admitted earlier this year that leaders in that organization have been similarly accused over the years. There are also rumored reports of similar behavior among the Amish and Mennonites — the Pennsylvania Dutch.

When releasing the grand jury report state Attorney General Josh Shapiro recommended that Pennsylvania’s statutes of limitations be amened so victims could seek justice and compensation.

That, however, has raised constitutional questions. Specifically, would it be constitutional to amend statutes of limitations for only one set of victims of a specific crime. Legislative staff attorneys are reportedly split on that issue.

Despite possible offenses in other denominations, the focus centered on Catholics mainly for one reason — clerical celibacy. Men who vowed to abstain from sex for religious reasons were suddenly accused of engaging in the most morally and socially unacceptable sexual behavior. Moreover, they were accused to stealing the innocence of the most vulnerable of their flock.

However, Shapiro did not recommend that criminal charges be filed against bishops in those respective Catholic Diocese for covering-up the alleged abuse allegations. The bishops could be guilty of obstruction of justice.

According to state Capitol cafeteria chatter and men’s room mumbles this is the dilemma faced by Republican and Democratic leaders:

Catholic Church pressure is growing with lobbyists for bishops claiming that any statute of limitations change would result in a virtual deluge of lawsuits diverting funds used to feed the poor and homeless, shelter battered and abused women, provide other social services and maintain parish buildings. Simply, it would plunge the Catholic Church into poverty in many areas.

State Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati, a Jefferson County Republican; state House Speaker Mike Turzai, an Allegheny County Republican; state Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa, and state House Democratic Leader Frank Dermody who represents the Tarentum-Arnold area of Westmoreland County, are Catholic.

Rep. Bryan Cutler, a Lancaster County Republican, is reportedly facing pressure from the Amish and Mennonite communities to lay-low on the issue.

Sources privately whispered last week they’ve all been advised that plunging their church into fiscal chaos could impact their respective re-election chances in 2020. Thus, expect the issue to remain unresolved until at least 2021, or, it may never be resolved.

Dennis Barbagello is a retired journalist who covered Harrisburg for the Tribune-Review.

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