House Passes Bill to Tighten Child Sex Laws

By Stephanie Whalen
Delco Times [Pennsylvania]
November 18, 2006

Members of the House passed a measure Wednesday that would tighten child sex abuse laws in Pennsylvania. The decision comes more than a year after the Philadelphia grand jury cited glitches in current Pennsylvania law for allowing the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and more than 60 of its priests to slip through the cracks.

The Archdiocese and some of its priests avoided criminal charges in 2005, after victims had come forward too late to report sexual abuse.

Senate Bill 1054, which passed the House 191-1, would now allow victims of child-sex crimes an extra 20 years to report abuse, or until their 50th birthday.

The legislation also expands the definition of who must report sexual abuse and increases requirements of sex offenders listed on the state's Megan's Law Web site.

It passed with flying colors Wednesday in the House, after first being approved in the Senate in June. All of Delco's representatives voted in favor of SB 1054 with the exception of Greg Vitali.

"My main problem (with the bill) was that the statute of limitations for bringing charges against one accused of these crimes is way too long - up to 50 years," he said.

"It's not fair to require a person to defend themselves against charges that occurred up to 50 years ago because memories fade, alibi witnesses die or move away, structures in question are destroyed."

Vitali posed the question, "If you were asked to establish your whereabouts at anytime in 1961, could you do it?"

Vitali said he also had a minor concern with the bill's ability to significantly broaden the definition of who must report knowledge of sex abuse to authorities.

Under the expanded definition, he said, courts could convict someone of a third-degree felony without even knowing that a child was being abused.

"For example," said Vitali, "if you had the responsibility for employing someone and that person committed a crime, you could be subject to felony or misdemeanor, even though you had no knowledge of it occurring."

The legislation reads: "A person who, in the course of their employment, occupation or practice of their profession, comes into contact with children shall report or cause a report to be made when the person has a reasonable cause to suspect that a child coming before them in their professional or official capacity is an abused child."

The exception to that rule would be "with respect to confidential communications made to a member of the clergy."

Senator Constance Williams, D-17, said the original bill stated that communications should be exempt when made to a member of the "ordained" clergy, and was concerned with the word's removal.

"Anyone can go online and get a degree to be an ordained clergy person," Williams explained. "Anyone can instantly become a clergy person - just like that."

She pointed out, though, that she still thought the legislation is important and needed.

She said she plans on voting in favor of the amended bill when it is expected to reach the Senate floor again for review next week.



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