The Lead

Lawmakers are taking a new approach to give older child sex abuse victims the chance to sue

By: - April 8, 2019 7:01 pm

Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, was abused by a priest as a child and has been at the forefront of the PA General Assembly’s attempts to adjust laws for victims of childhood sexual abuse (Capital-Star photo).

A House committee advanced bills from two members who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse Monday, as the lawmakers seek justice for minor victims.

Veteran lawmaker Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, and first-year Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair, watched the House Judiciary Committee advance their bills to eliminate the criminal statute of limitations for sexual abuse of a child and open a retroactive window for civil suits against the institutions that shielded the perpetrators.

The idea to give victims who’ve aged out of the statute of limitations a two-year period to sue for damages is not a new one. But unlike in past sessions, this year’s proposal would amend the state Constitution.

“We both agreed what we have done before has not worked. We can get it out of the House, but we cannot get it out of the Senate,” Rozzi said.

Since entering the Legislature in 2013, Rozzi, who was raped by a priest as a child, has made changing the statute a top priority. However, his support for a retroactive civil window has put him at odds with Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson.

Scarnati and a majority of senators have said the proposal is unworkable, would bankrupt churches, and would likely face legal challenges that could delay justice even further.

The Republican leader advanced his own bill to eliminate the statute of limitations following the release last year of a grand jury report on sexual abuse by hundreds of Catholic priests. The House amended the bill to add civil window language and sent it back to the Senate with wide approval, 173 to 21.

However, some key players this session — including new House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, and new Judiciary Committee Chair Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin — were among the handful of no votes.

Rozzi said talks with Cutler helped convince him of the need to take action now to assist current child abuse victims by eliminating the statute of limitations, while taking the slower-but-safer path to a civil window by constitutional amendment.

“If we pass a statutory change, it could be [held up] in the courts for years when it’s challenged,” he said.

Amending the state Constitution requires the Legislature to pass the same bill in two consecutive sessions. The measure then goes to the voters for consideration as a ballot referendum.

Despite weeks of negotiations after the House passed its bill last year, the Senate could not reach an agreement with the lower chamber and all proposals died at the end of the session.

A spokesperson for Scarnati did reply to a request for comment on the bills. But Rozzi said he hopes the legislation will help stake out where the upper chamber stands.

“We’re going to put the Senate on notice,” Rozzi said, “Like, ‘Hey, you got a bill you can pass and stand behind, or are you going to walk away? And if you walk away, was it really constitutionality, or was it something else?”

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.