State Rep. Mark Rozzi: Victims deserve justice. We are giving them a dual path.

Erie Times-News [Erie PA]

March 30, 2021

By State Rep. Mark Rozzi

Rep. Gregory and I came together again to work out a dual path for victims: Offering a standalone statutory bill and a constitutional amendment.

The short, brutal truth is Pennsylvania has failed its children.

Years after the attorney general’s grand jury report detailed the systemic cover-up of childhood sexual abuse by the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania, victims in our state are still waiting for justice.

That’s about to change.

You don’t ever stop being the victim of childhood sexual abuse. You don’t ever stop looking for justice.

I would know, because I am a victim of childhood sexual abuse.

My good friend and colleague Rep. Jim Gregory has worked by my side for years to deliver justice, and he, too, is the victim of childhood sexual abuse.

He is a Republican; I am a Democrat. We come from different parts of the state, yet this partnership works because this is not a partisan issue. We are after the same thing: Justice for victims.

Victims have suffered heartbreak after heartbreak in waiting for the Pennsylvania General Assembly to act. The latest setbacks happened when the Department of State failed to advertise a constitutional amendment — forcing it to be pulled from the May 2021 ballot — and then again when leadership from both chambers failed to support an emergency amendment in March.

These failures have been devastating for victims. Victims can go to deep, dark places following yet another failure by the General Assembly to help right past wrongs. 

As furious as I am with the Department of State’s shortcomings, I can’t change the past. Anger will not bring about justice, so Rep. Gregory and I came together again to work out a dual path for victims: Offering a standalone statutory bill and offering a constitutional amendment.

The first path of a statutory bill could be realized through House Bill 951, which I have authored and which Rep. Gregory will offer an amendment to on Monday, April 5. The bill would partially lift sovereign immunity protection for public schools and institutions in sexual abuse cases — leveling the playing field by holding both public and private institutions equally accountable. It would allow for civil cases where the injuries to the plaintiff were caused by actions or omissions by state or local agencies that constitutes negligence. Gregory’s amendment would provide a retroactive two-year window for victims to file civil lawsuits, opening the door for older victims who have aged out of their statute of limitations. A similar bill passed in New York and did not bankrupt its public school system, moreover, it exposed institutions for covering up criminal acts.

The second path calls for a constitutional amendment, which could be realized through House Bill 14, legislation authored by Gregory. House Bill 14 has already passed the House and Senate this month and will need to pass both chambers in the 2023-24 session before it appears on the 2023 ballot for voters to decide if it should be adopted to the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

My colleague is equally frustrated by these barriers to justice and continues to speak out for victims. 

“I came to the legislature to help people,” Gregory said. “I offered a path around an obstacle to justice in the Senate for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Now another obstacle, perhaps even with intent by someone in the administration, has brought us to this new approach. Doing nothing and waiting two more years without another option felt like another failure I wasn’t going to carry with me. 

“Mark and I committed to seeing this through, and we are in this together and united with the victims.” 

House Bill 951 only needs to pass one time by a simple majority, and we are there. It would provide the two-year window for justice for victims’ civil suits. Cases would have King’s Bench jurisdiction, meaning the Pennsylvania Supreme Court could decide on the bill’s constitutionality immediately instead of waiting years to find out if these cases can move forward. If House Bill 951 fails, we still have the constitutional amendment route, and by then the two-year process for the amendment has already begun.

The first path, a statutory standalone bill, is what victims have always wanted from Day 1. It’s what our own attorney general said is constitutional, but session after session standalone bills have stalled in the Senate.

I have heard all the excuses why Pennsylvania cannot act right now, none of which stand up to scrutiny in the cold light of day.

The longer the General Assembly waits, the more time institutions have to move assets and money to avoid responsibility in potential civil suits.

The longer the General Assembly waits, the more time institutions have to move assets and money to avoid responsibility in potential civil suits. Make no mistake, that has already been done.

There is hope, however, that Harrisburg has changed. Victims met with Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman earlier this month, and the victims were told the Senate has the votes to pass the standalone statutory bill. 

I have long been waiting for the day when Pennsylvania’s legislature makes abused children a top priority. For more than 15 years, victims of child sexual abuse have been told to wait for the General Assembly to act in order to right the wrongs perpetrated on the most vulnerable members of our communities — our children. We have given public schools more time. We have given the Catholic Church more time. We have given abusers more time. And my question today remains: When will the state of Pennsylvania provide child sexual abuse survivors their day in court?

The answer, I pray, is soon.

State Rep. Mark Rozzi has served the 126th Legislative District in Berks County since 2013.