Victims of Abuse Focus of State Bill

By Martha Raffaele
Evening Sun [Harrisburg PA]
November 17, 2006

Harrisburg — Changes to Pennsylvania's child sex-abuse laws, including some recommended by a grand jury that investigated alleged abuse by Philadelphia priests, are slated to be considered by the state Senate next week in the final days of the legislative session.

If the Senate joins the House in approving the measure, victims of child-sex crimes will have until their 50th birthday — 20 years longer than current law allows — to file criminal complaints. Employers and supervisors could be held criminally liable if they know of alleged abuse by employees who care for children but fail to stop it, and caregivers would have to report suspected abuse regardless of whether the victim reports it.

The House of Representatives amended a Senate bill that was passed in June before approving the measure 191-1 on Tuesday. Final Senate approval is needed before it would be sent to Gov. Ed Rendell.

Erik Arneson, an aide to Senate Majority Leader David Brightbill, R-Lebanon, said the Senate would probably accept the changes made by the House. Sen. John Pippy, R-Allegheny, who sponsored the original bill, said Senate Republicans would discuss the latest version in caucus Monday.

"A lot of the things I've seen are very positive," Pippy said Thursday.

The bill also includes a provision proposed by Pippy that would require more information about sex offenders to be posted on the state's Megan's Law Web site, including complete addresses for all offenders and whether their offenses involved children.

The state's Catholic dioceses already have policies in place to protect children, such as mandatory criminal-background checks for anyone who has regular contact with children, said Amy Beisel, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, which lobbies on behalf of the state's Catholic churches.

The grand jury recommended legislative reforms in a September 2005 report that documented alleged assaults on minors by more than 60 Philadelphia Archdiocese priests since 1967; it also alleged church leaders covered up the abuse. But the panel said that, under current law, too much time had elapsed for criminal charges to be filed against the church or the priests.

John Salveson, founder and president of the Bryn Mawr-based Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse, said expanding the statute of limitations was a key provision because young victims may be too afraid or not know how to report alleged abuse.

"It often takes victims a long time to even sometimes understand what happened to them," Salveson said. "By the time they have figured that out, (it's) too late."

Salveson said his group would continue to advocate legislation that would temporarily lift the statute of limitations on civil lawsuits. A 2002 state law gives child sex-abuse victims until their 30th birthday to file suit, but it is not retroactive; victims previously had to file suit within two years of an alleged incident.

Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware, said he voted against the bill because he questioned the fairness of expanding the statute of limitations.

"If the law were in effect today, a crime that was allegedly committed during the Vietnam War era, 1965, could be brought (to trial)," Vitali said. "That puts someone who's facing these charges in a very unfair situation."


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