PA House votes to extend statute of limitations in criminal and civil cases of child sex abuse
By Steve Esack
April 12, 2016
|Crowd on the steps during the anti-pay raise "Rock the Capital Rally" on the west steps of the Capital Building in Harrisburg, PA Monday afternoon, September 26, 2005. An estimated 1500-2000 people attended the event. |
HARRISBURG — Last-minute attempts to postpone and stop a bill that would extend the statute of limitations for child sex-abuse cases failed Tuesday in the House.
And they failed by wide margins as a majority of Republican and Democratic lawmakers united behind a belief they had the power and duty to atone for the past and make a better future for victims of child sex abuse.
The bill would eliminate a legal time limit on when child abusers can be prosecuted for future crimes, and would give victims of past abuse more time to file civil lawsuits against their abusers and any employers who might have enabled the abuse.
The measure now moves to the Senate, where it is expected to face intense opposition from Catholic-based and insurance-related lobbying groups.
But Tuesday in the House, the votes came during an emotionally charged 90-minute hearing in which Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, again told how an Allentown Diocese priest groomed and raped him and his friends when they were young and how some of those boys later killed themselves.
"He told us we keep our mouth shut or he would destroy our family," said Rozzi, now 44. "Put yourself in my position as a 13-year-old."
Many lawmakers did. They also put themselves in the shoes of children from western Pennsylvania. Several lawmakers heaped scorn on bishops, police and prosecutors who, according to a state grand jury report, colluded for decades to cover up child sex abuse in part by paying off victims in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese.
Based on the grand jury report, the attorney general's office March 15 charged three Franciscan friars with child endangerment and criminal conspiracy.
"Little kids were victims under the cover of religion," said Rep. Mike Regan, R-York. "Could there possibly be another more heinous crime?"
House Bill 1947 was sponsored by the chairmen of the House Judiciary Committee, Reps. Ron Marsico, R-Dauphin, and Joseph Petrarca, D-Westmoreland.
The bill would treat future child sex-abuse crimes like murder, which can be prosecuted any time, by dropping a 30-year statute of limitations on when criminal sex-abuse charges can be filed. The bill also would add 20 years to the 12-year civil statute of limitations for future cases. Such a change would allow child victims to file a civil suit until their 50th birthdays, up from their 30th under current law.
The bill also would partially lift the sovereign immunity clause that prevents child sex-abuse victims from suing state and local governments. The amendments say a victim could receive up to $200,000 and $500,000 from state or local governments, respectively, if he or she can prove in a civil lawsuit the abuse was caused by "gross negligence" of officials after a child sex-abuse claim.
On Monday, Rozzi offered his own amendment. It would permit adults up to age 50 to file civil lawsuits for old instances of sex abuse — no matter how far into the past it occurred. Rozzi's amendment is opposed by the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania, a lobbying group. The federation supports the other components of the bill.
The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference supports the criminal components of the bill, but not the civil one. The civil components are unfair because they do not treat private and public institutions the same, said Amy Hill, the conference's spokeswoman.
"If lawmakers decide that this is good policy, they must apply it equally to both public and private institutions as a matter of fairness," Hill said. "The current proposition creates two classes of survivors of abuse that has already occurred."
During the House debate, Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, offered an amendment that would postpone the final vote for 30 days. While saying he would hunt down someone who abused his children, Diamond said he believes Rozzi's amendment was unconstitutional. State courts have ruled the constitution's "remedies clause" precludes people from retroactively suing others for any sort of transgression that would be time-barred by the statute of limitations.
Rozzi fired back, saying the court rulings Diamond mentioned have since been superseded by other state court and U.S. Supreme Court rulings that struck down the remedies clause in certain cases in which plaintiffs were denied their right to sue by a statute of limitations.
Diamond's postponement amendment was defeated 186-11.
Citing his Catholic faith, Rep. Paul Schemel, R-Franklin, said he understands the emotion behind the bill, but that does not make it a good piece of legislation. It would financially hurt churches, schools and parishioners by making them liable for crimes that occurred decades ago.
Rep. Madeline Dean, D-Montgomery, also mentioning her Catholicism, said the bishops and other church leaders are solely responsible for whatever lawsuit they may face through their actions to cover up the crimes of priests.
"It was adults who kept this in the darkness, the perpetrators and supervisors," Dean said.
The Catholic faith is steeped in symbolism, often about lightness and darkness, she added.
"This measure today will help us go into the light," Dean said.