House passes statutory window for old child abuse lawsuits, splitting GOP majority

By: - April 7, 2021 4:10 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 by Stephen Caruso)

By a 149-52 vote, the Pennsylvania House on Wednesday approved a measure allowing survivors of childhood sexual abuse to sue their perpetrators and those who shielded them.

Unlike a constitutional amendment the Legislature passed last month, this proposal could become law with a wave of Gov. Tom Wolf’s pen, and allow for immediate court action. 

The constitutional amendment would not allow lawsuits until at least 2023, following a second pass through the General Assembly, and approval by the voters at a statewide referendum.

“We have done so many bills out of the House. And they stick with the survivors. I want them to stick with us one more time,” state Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, the measure’s sponsor, told the Capital-Star. “Let’s get this done, send it over to the Senate, and get to the other business at hand.”

Childhood victims of sexual abuse run out of time to sue for damages after they turn 30 years old. This bill would give them a two-year reprieve from that statute of limitations, allowing them to revive old claims in court. 

Such a period to file old lawsuits was on track to be implemented this year, but the Department of State under Wolf failed to properly advertise the amendment.

The statutory change, while long sought, faces long odds in the upper chamber, which returns to Harrisburg on April 19. 

Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, maintains that such a law would violate the state constitution. She said in March that her caucus would only pursue the reform as a constitutional amendment – a process that can take years. 

Her spokeswoman told the Capital-Star on Tuesday that the leader’s position hadn’t changed. 

As floor leader, Ward controls what bills are on the Senate’s calendar, effectively giving her the final say on which bills come up for a vote or not.

But she’s outranked in her caucus by the chamber’s influential President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, who, according to an advocate for survivors, broke with Ward on a statutory fix.

Carolyn Fortney, a Dauphin County woman who was abused as a child by the same priest who also abused her sisters, announced in a Facebook post on March 24 that Corman pledged his support for a statutory bill in a meeting in his Capitol office. 

Fortney and her sisters have been leading voices of the reform effort in recent years, appearing frequently at the Capitol to testify at public hearings and lobby lawmakers. 

Corman’s office has not responded to repeated requests for comment about Fortney’s visit. But the Office of the Attorney General, which in 2018 published the grand jury report on clergy sex abuse that recommended a retroactive window, indicated in a statement that Corman supported the statutory fix. 

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In a written statement issued in late March, Attorney General Josh Shapiro told the Capital-Star that he was “heartened by the commitment that the Senate President Pro Tempore has made to survivors” to push a floor vote on the statutory change.

“Sen. Corman did not create this mess we find ourselves in — the Department of State did — but his efforts to find a just solution are appreciated,” Shapiro said.

The House last passed a statutory window for lawsuits in late 2018 by a vote of 173-21, after Shapiro’s office released its grand jury report. 

It was passed in direct opposition from then-Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson. Scarnati, who has since retired, blocked that statutory proposal from a Senate vote in Oct. 2018, despite frantic lobbying efforts by abuse survivors — such as Rozzi.

The constitutional amendment was picked up as a new strategy in 2019 to get around Scarnati’s concerns, who claimed the statutory window for post facto lawsuits was unconstitutional.

The amendment was championed by Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair, first elected in 2018 and also a childhood survivor of abuse.

The amendment passed both House and Senate easily last session, and was on track to appear on the state’s 2021 primary ballot when Wolf announced his administration had not advertised the amendment’s passage as is legally required.

The error reset the time table for implementing the amendment, to the horror of survivors. An effort to use a seldom used emergency constitutional amendment also fell short last month.

Wednesday’s vote split the Republican caucus down the middle, a rarity in the legislature. All but one of the dissenting votes was cast by a GOP lawmaker.

At least 21 Republican lawmakers in office in 2018 flipped from a yes to a no on the statutory window, according to a Capital-Star review of voting records.

Faced with limited Republican backing, statute of limitations reform on thin ice in House

Capital-Star Staff Reporter Elizabeth Hardison contributed to this story.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is the Capital-Star's House reporter. He previously covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter. You can reach him at 845-891-4306.

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