HARRISBURG - In a stunning shift, the House voted Tuesday to abolish the statute of limitations for child-sex-abuse crimes and expand the legal window for victims to file lawsuits against their abusers.
The 180-15 vote marked a swift and groundbreaking development on an issue that advocates, particularly clergy sex-abuse victims, had sought for years. The bill now heads to the Senate, where its fate is unclear. If approved there, it could open the door for hundreds of victims who say the statute of limitations has prevented them from seeking justice.
"You have given the children of this commonwealth hope," said Rep. Mark Rozzi (D., Berks), an abuse victim, who sponsored the bill.
Opponents warned that such a law could have a financially crippling impact on institutions, particularly the Catholic Church. Similar steps in other states led to a wave of lawsuits and plunged more than a dozen dioceses into bankruptcy.
"Such action has led to the closure of parishes, schools, and vital social service ministries," said Amy B. Hill, a spokeswoman for the Catholic Conference, the church's lobbying arm in Harrisburg.
Under current law, victims of child sex abuse have until they are 30 to sue their assailants. The window to bring criminal charges extends until they turn 50.
Advocates say it often takes decades for victims to acknowledge and share the details of their abuse, which makes the current law ineffective.
The House-passed measure calls for eliminating the timetable to file criminal cases. And it would extend the civil statute of limitations by 20 years, until victims turn 50.
Most controversial is the decision to make the law retroactive, which would allow victims now between 30 and 50 to bring new claims over abuse that happened decades ago.
"There's no question that this is progress," John Salveson, president of the Pennsylvania-based Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse, which has long lobbied for changes to the law, said after the vote.
"These lawsuits now won't be immediately thrown out - they'll end up in court, and files will be released," said Salveson, a clergy sex abuse victim. "The Catholic Church's mantra has been that these cases are so old, there's no evidence, and that memories forget. But there's plenty of evidence. It's in their files, and that's why they have fought for years against this."
A wave of lawsuits by clergy sex-abuse victims has led 13 dioceses in the United States to file for bankruptcy in the last dozen years, according to BishopAccountability, an organization that chronicles such cases.
When California legislators agreed to temporarily set aside the statute of limitations on sex-abuse claims, more than 850 suits were filed, costing the church more than $1 billion in settlements, damages, and legal fees. In 2009, the Wilmington, Del., diocese filed for bankruptcy and later agreed to pay $77 million to settle at least 175 claims.
Pennsylvania plaintiffs have been far less successful. Like his predecessors, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput has been a vocal opponent of abolishing the civil statute of limitations or opening a temporary window to allow accusers to file claims. He has said restricting the time in which lawsuits can be filed is a good idea - "or we wouldn't have them."
Last summer, the Philadelphia Archdiocese took the rare step of agreeing to settle claims with two accusers who claimed to have been sexually abused by diocesan priests. Those claims fell within the current law.
Dozens of other similar lawsuits failed, blocked because they were outside the statute of limitations.
A spokesman for Chaput on Tuesday said he would have no comment on the House bill, and deferred to the church's advocate in Harrisburg. In its statement, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference said it continues to "have serious concerns about retroactively extending the civil statute of limitations against nonprofit and private institutions, allowing lawsuits for cases involving matters that occurred decades ago."
Hill said that the enactment of such laws in other states meant "the Catholic faithful and the poor served by the church, who were in no way responsible for abuse that occurred decades ago, were penalized instead of those who perpetrated those crimes."
It was a new national spotlight on such allegations in Pennsylvania that helped boost the bill in a Republican-led House that previously would not consider it.
In grand jury reports last month, Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane accused previous bishops in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown of ignoring or hiding decades of sexual abuse by priests and religious leaders against hundreds of children. But Kane said that nearly all of the allegations were too old to be prosecuted.
The grand jury that investigated them became the latest to recommend that the state abolish the criminal statute of limitations and open a window to let older victims sue for decades-old abuse.
"Hundreds of children today ... are still suffering those consequences," Kane said in announcing the investigation.
A spokesman for Gov. Wolf said Tuesday that the governor would sign the House bill if it reaches his desk.
Jennifer Kocher, spokeswoman for the Republicans who control the Senate, said leaders there will decide how to proceed after they have had a chance to read the legislation.
The measure will likely be assigned to the Judiciary Committee, chaired by Stewart J. Greenleaf (R., Montgomery). He could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
His chief of staff, Pat Beadling, said "the senator will review the bill," but would not say whether he would commit to holding a hearing on it.
Rozzi, who for years has spearheaded the effort, acknowledged such a law would open the door for more victims to file suit.
But, he said, giving them that opportunity was necessary to provide them "with the healing they deserve."