House passes child sex abuse statute reforms, kicks them to Senate, Scarnati

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 by Stephen Caruso)

It took 20 months for the Pennsylvania House to vote on changing the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse last session.

This time, it took just three days.

By wide bipartisan margins, the House on Wednesday passed legislation to eliminate the criminal statute of limitations for child sexual abuse, expand the civil statute of limitations, and open a retroactive civil window so that victims who have aged out of the current statute could sue for damages.

“It’s a long game and we need to move forward now,” Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, a victim of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a priest, said on the House floor.

The two bills, one from Rozzi and one from first-year Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair, passed by a vote of 187-5 and 177-15, respectively.

Rozzi’s bill changes the time frame to bring child sexual abuse cases into court going forward. There would be no limit to bring criminal charges, while the bill also adds another five years — from age 50 to age 55 — for individuals to bring a civil case.

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

The bill also removes a small but controversial provision that meant children abused by a teacher or other public employee had a higher burden of proof and limited damages in court.

Such a provision was key for Rep. Frank Ryan, R-Lebanon, who was one of just 21 “no” votes last session on a similar bill that didn’t close the public liability loophole.

“[Rozzi] answered every question I wanted answered,” Ryan said. He was still a no on the retroactive civil window, however, citing concerns around post-facto rule making.

The retroactive civil window has often stalled passage of a bill that would, according to child abuse victims and advocates, bring long awaited justice.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, has vocally opposed retroactive measures, bringing along a majority of the Republican-controlled Senate.

He has contended it is unconstitutional and could bankrupt churches if passed.

This time around, the House passed a constitutional amendment to create the two-year civil window — a time period in which any child sexual abuse victim could sue the perpetrator for damages.

That bill, sponsored by Gregory — who was also abused as a child — would only be implemented if it passes two sessions in a row and is approved by voters in a referendum.

The House also took a tactical step this week when it linked Rozzi’s statute bill with Gregory’s civil window bill.

A floor amendment passed by the House unanimously Tuesday means that Rozzi’s bill eliminating the time limit on child abuse suits will only go into effect if and when Gregory’s civil window is approved.

Joining the two issues requires the Senate to consider both, and avoids the chamber ducking the retroactive window in favor of the statute changes, according to state Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm.

“If you spin them off, you really lose a lot of the momentum,” she said.

A spokesperson for Scarnati did reply to a request for comment on the legislation. A spokesperson for Senate Majority Jake Corman, R-Centre, said in an email the bills will be referred to committee for consideration.

Not everyone is on board with the strategy. Marci Hamilton, CEO of ChildUSA, which studies child abuse, said the hedging with an amendment was unnecessary, pointing to progress in other states like New York and New Jersey that have also been hesitant to pass a retroactive window.

“Basically, what they are telling victims is they need to wait another three of four years for another failed experiment,” Hamilton said.

House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, has already promised to bring Gregory’s amendment up next session if it passes this time around, according to a spokesperson.

The House will also advance bills to fix the last two suggestions from the state grand jury report next week — strengthening mandatory reporting of child abuse and not letting non-disclosure agreements get in the way of criminal investigations.

All together, the push has some members confident that the General Assembly could finally see success in addressing child abuse from the state’s institutions, whether the Catholic church or Penn State.

“It’s criminal for us to not get this done this session,” House Democratic Whip Jordan Harris, of Philadelphia, said.

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