‘These victims want their day in court’: In surprise move, state Senate poised to vote this week on statute of limitations reform.

The Senate Judiciary Committee votes on statute of limitation reform bills on Monday, Nov. 18. Capital-Star photo by Elizabeth Hardison.

A year after it dealt a devastating blow to survivors of sexual assault who wanted more time to bring their predators to court, Pennsylvania’s state Senate is poised to vote on a bill that would overhaul the Commonwealth’s statute of limitations on certain childhood sex crimes. 

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted Monday to advance a bill sponsored by Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, that would eliminate the time limits for victims of childhood sexual abuse to press criminal charges against their offenders and extend the timeframe for them to bring civil lawsuits. 

The committee also approved a proposed amendment to the state Constitution, which would create a two-year retroactive window in which survivors of sexual abuse could bring civil suits against offenders in old cases. 

The amendment is sponsored by Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair, who, like Rozzi, was sexually abused as a child.

Both measures were recommended in a 2018 grand jury report that uncovered decades of child sexual abuse and coverup in six of Pennsylvania’s Catholic dioceses. 

Supporters say the reforms will bring justice to victims of sexual abuse, who often need decades before they’re ready to face their abusers in court.

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The bills resemble legislation that died in the Senate in October 2018, when Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, declined to bring them to the floor for a vote — a move that outraged victims and their advocates.

Scarnati said that the two-year window for civil lawsuits would violate Pennsylvania’s state constitution and invite costly legal challenges. 

The authors of the reform bills agreed to change their tactics this year by proposing a constitutional amendment — a move that Scarnati says will circumvent any constitutional challenges and gives him the assurance he needs to bring the bills to the Senate floor.

Scarnati expects the Senate will pass the bill this week. The package has already passed the House with near-unanimous support.

“We’re bringing something to the table that we all support,” Scarnati said. “I’m glad to be moving this and hope to get it done.”

The Judiciary Committee made just one change to the bills before voting to send them to the Senate on Monday.

The 14-member panel unanimously approved an amendment allowing abuse victims to claim up to $10,000 per year to pay for therapy — an estimated $5.6 million proposal that will be funded with money from the state state Victim Compensation fund, its chairwoman, Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, said.

Sexual assault survivors who have advocated for statute of limitations reforms for years were heartened by the Senate committee’s action on Monday. 

But they were disappointed that the provision giving them two years to bring civil lawsuits in old cases is being floated as a constitutional amendment. 

“It feels like it’s another stall tactic, and victims are losing hope because of that,” said Lara Fortney-McKeever, who, along with her four sisters, was abused by a Dauphin County Catholic priest in the 1980s.

Victims such as Fortney-McKeever would prefer to see the Legislature revert to the old version of Rozzi’s bill, which would have added the retroactive civil window to Pennsylvania’s criminal statutes. 

Pennsylvania Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm said Monday that provision will face legal challenges no matter how it’s passed. Pursuing the reform as a constitutional amendment will only prolong those legal battles and force victims to wait longer to see their day in court, she said.

Constitutional amendments must be approved by the General Assembly in two consecutive sessions before going before voters for ratification — a step that could take place in 2021 at the earliest. 

“A constitutional amendment is a long, grueling process, and it’s not immune from [legal] challenges” Storm said. “These victims want their day in court — the quicker, the better.”

Senate Democrats who introduced their own reform package this spring said they opposed a constitutional amendment. One of them, Sen. Tim Kearney, told the Capital-Star at the time that he’d vote against such an amendment if it came to the Senate.

But Senate leaders were adamant Monday that the reform package could only pass through their chamber with some compromise.

“We have said all along that doing this through a statute wouldn’t pass constitutional muster,” Senate Republican spokeswoman Jenn Kocher said Monday. “This [amendment] is the way to do it.”