Effort to Reform Child Sex Abuse Crime Laws Clears a Hurdle in House
By vey DeJesus
April 11, 2016
Rozzi.jpg Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks County, and a victim of sex abuse as a child, speaks at the Crime Victim Awareness Rally in the Rotunda at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Apr. 11, 2016. Mark Pynes | email@example.com
The laws that govern how long victims of child sex abuse have to bring their predators to justice came one step closer to being reformed on Monday.
A bill that would reform the statute of limitations cleared a hurdle in the House as lawmakers approved an amendment to House Bill 1947, which would eliminate civil and criminal statutes of limitations to most sex crimes, especially child sex abuse cases - all going forward.
The House agreed to attach an amendment introduced by Rep. Mark Rozzi (D-Berks) that would retroactively raise the age limit for civil lawsuits in sex abuse cases from 30 to 50.
Speaking before a House session that was notably boisterous with chatter all day, Rozzi brought the chamber to a hushed silence as he spoke about friends and victims who had either committed suicide or suffered decades of anguish after being sexually abused by priests.
Rozzi's amendment would raise the age limit for victims to seek charges - retroactively — from 30 to 50.
"This amendment allows past victims to likewise bring civil lawsuits," he said.
House Bill 1947 was introduced by House Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. Ron Marsico (R-Dauphin) last week. The bill moved swiftly out of committee.
Under current law, victims of child sexual abuse are barred from seeking civil action after they reach the age of 30.
Victims can bring criminal charges against offenders until they reach 50 years of age — but only if the victim turned 18 years old after Aug. 27, 2002. The law allows victims older than that to report until their 30th birthday.
"This is a matter of fairness and justice for some," said Rozzi, himself a survivor of clergy sex abuse.
In a poignant speech about his friend who committed suicide at the age of 44 after years of dealing with the ravages of abuse, Rozzi appealed to House colleagues to approve his amendment, speaking candidly and with graphic details about the horrors of children who have had priests squeeze their genitals or insert fingers into their anus.
He urged his colleagues to read the grand jury report out of the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, "if you have the stomach to."
The report released in early March found systemic and widespread clergy sex abuse of hundreds of children, and concealment by church officials. The Altoona-Johnstown report mirrors earlier grand jury investigations into the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
"Mr. Speaker, we know this problem will never go away, not while archaic and arbitrary statutes exist," Rozzi said.
Victims advocates say victims of child sex abuse typically are not ready to come forth about their abuse long after it has happens - in many cases, decades after when the statute of limitations have expired.
Just hours earlier on Monday, hundreds of survivors of abuse and crimes and advocates filled the Main Rotunda of the Capitol calling for a reform to the state's laws.
Marsico's bill - HB 1947 - would eliminate all statutes – civil and criminal – in cases of sexual abuse going forward. His bill also would waive the sovereign immunity clause that prevents child sex-abuse victims from suing state and local entities, such as school districts.
Two other amendments were withdrawn: one would have lifted expired civil statutes for a period of time.
While Rep. Tom Murt (R- Montgomery/Phila.) argued that as many as eight states had lifted expired civil statutes without the flood of false claims, he was withdrawn his amendment for the benefit of victims.
"I resent anyone saying this issue is driven by special interests," he said. "It is driven by victims....some who have suffered in silence and humiliation and shame. The shame is not theirs. The shame is ours if we do not take action on this issue to help these victims and help victimization of any other children."
He said he was withdrawing his amendment in order for Marsico's bill to move quickly from the House in the hope that Senate colleagues would provide retroactivity measures to the bill.
Rozzi said that while his amendment did not help everyone, it "at least opens the door."
Rozzi urged House colleagues "to stand with me" on this issue.
"It is way past time to do the right thing," said Rozzi, who received a nearly full-House standing ovation.
The bill, which will now be reprinted to reflect the amendments, will be taken up for third reconsideration later this week, possibly as early as Tuesday.