Pa. House moves closer to passing bill to toughen child sex-abuse law
By Steve Esack
April 12, 2016
|House acts on bill to change the statutue of limitations for when prosecutors can charge someone for sexually abusing children and when child abuse vitims can sue in federal court to recoup damages for emotional and physical harm.|
HARRISBURG — At a lectern on the House floor, far below a ceiling mural that depicts the celestial passage of time, a lawmaker spoke of the pain and suffering that never ends for him and other victims of child sex abuse.
As he has done repeatedly since his election in 2013, Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, explained how he and his childhood friends were raped by an Allentown Catholic Diocese priest while growing up in Reading. One of those friends, Rozzi said, committed suicide this Good Friday after a lifetime of therapy and drug abuse.
"He was 44," Rozzi said of the suicide victim.
Then Rozzi urged his colleagues, silent and listening closely, to remove legal deadlines for bringing criminal charges against child abusers and that prevent child-abuse victims from suing them and perhaps their employers in civil court.
"We can't change what happened to the innocents of the past," Rozzi said, "but we can make it right."
His colleagues responded, overwhelmingly, with a voice vote devoid of nays to accept a bill making those changes.
Though Monday's preliminary vote was not contentious, the bill has a long way to go before becoming law. A final House vote remains, perhaps Tuesday or Wednesday, before the measure moves to the Senate, where its fate is uncertain.
"We have not discussed it in caucus," said Jenn Kocher, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre. If the bill comes over, she added, it will be referred to the correct committee.
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 crimes. Such a change would allow child victims to file a civil suit until their 50th birthday, 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 in the past it occurred.
"Mr. Speaker, we know this problem will never go away, not while these archaic and arbitrary statutes of limitation exist for civil cases," Rozzi said. "But civil statutes can and have been lifted in other states and have been upheld constitutionally in other states. And Pennsylvania will be no exception."
Others disagree, including the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, which has had priests lobby their flocks at Sunday Mass, and lobbyists work the Capitol halls in opposition to any changes to the civil statute of limitations. The Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania, another lobbying group, was not opposed to the original bill but is opposed to any changes that retroactively allow lawsuits.
"We are currently reviewing the legislation and its impact on our parishes," said Amy Hill, the Catholic Conference's spokeswoman. "However, we remain concerned about potential amendments that would retroactively nullify the statute of limitations."
With the help of intense lobbying efforts by Catholic and insurance groups, bills to change the statute of limitations for child sex abuse have languished for years in the state Legislature.
The wall of opposition began crumbling from within the House with Rozzi's lobbying. Using graphic language, Rozzi walked the Capitol halls talking to lawmakers and media about the abuse he says was inflicted on him at age 13 by the Rev. Edward Graff. The priest later died in a Texas prison, and the Allentown Diocese paid $275,000 to settle a Texas minor's abuse claim.
Then came a March grand jury report issued by the Pennsylvania attorney general's office. It accused the Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown of allowing at least 50 priests and other religious leaders to sexually abuse hundreds of children for five decades. Based on the grand jury report, the attorney general's office on March 15 charged three Franciscan friars with child endangerment and criminal conspiracy.
"Read the Altoona-Johnstown report if you have the stomach," Rozzi told colleagues in his speech Monday.
Rozzi's amendment was the only one that came for a vote Monday. Eleven others were dropped.
Two of the dropped amendments were offered by Rep. Tom Murt, R-Montgomery, a Catholic like Rozzi. The amendments would have created a two-year and three-year window that would allow adults to file lawsuits. Currently they are time-barred from suing alleged abusers and institutions.
The Altoona-Johnstown grand jury report, as well as two involving the Philadelphia Archdiocese, recommended ending the criminal and civil statute of limitations for child abuse, Murt said. Other states that ended the time limits did not experience a torrent of lawsuits as opponents claim, Murt said. But Murt said he was dropping his amendments to get a bill as quickly as possible to the Senate.
Other withdrawn amendments would have placed a financial cap on civil lawsuit awards. They also would have required victims to prove, before filing a civil lawsuit, that they had visited mental health and sex-abuse counselors before age 30, and those professionals attest the victim's story is true.