Pressure now on Pa. Senate to provide child sexual abuse survivors with chance for justice


February 24, 2023

By Jan Murphy

House Speaker Mark Rozzi received applause Friday in the Capitol Rotunda from a large gathering of Democratic colleagues after the legislature took a major step toward his decade-long promise to deliver justice for survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

The Berks County Democrat, a victim of clergy sex abuse as an adolescent, said, “I want to say to all the victims and survivors out there that we have your backs. We will support you.”

The news conference followed a House special session where the chamber approved two measures with bipartisan support to provide a two-year retroactive window for previously time-barred abuse victims to file civil lawsuits against their abuser and any institution, including public school districts, that covered it up.

One measure would accomplish the goal through a constitutional amendment that requires voter ratification and the other achieves it through the regular law-making process.

Rozzi said he favors this dual approach in the event a law would get tangled up in court, the constitutional amendment, which could appear on the November election ballot at the earliest, would be a backup.

But it is not a done deal yet. One or both measures have to pass the Senate.

The leader of the GOP-controlled Senate has shown no willingness to date to consider the House-passed version. The Senate chose instead to bundle the childhood sexual abuse statute of limitation reform with two other unrelated issues in a bill and passed it in January.

Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman, R-Indiana County, said he expected that action to be the final time the chamber deals with the issue.

But the new Democratic House majority has voiced little appetite for considering the Senate bill in its current form, which includes constitutional amendments to require voters to present ID in all elections and giving the General Assembly final say on regulations it dislikes.

Rozzi vowed that supporters of the House measures “will be relentless” in their efforts to get the Senate to consider what the House passed.

He told reporters after the news conference the way he sees it: “You either support victims or you support pedophiles or we support protecting institutions, which one is it? I think most Pennsylvanians out there, they stand with victims and survivors.”

The speaker indicated that he plans to have conversations with leaders of the Senate Republican majority and also is looking for Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro to help sway the Senate to pass the House bills. Rozzi also acknowledged a willingness to consider a compromise if that’s what it takes to get the Senate’s buy-in.

“We can have that conversation and we will have that conversation,” Rozzi said.

As the state’s attorney general, Shapiro oversaw the investigation that culminated in the 2018 grand jury report that found about 300 Roman Catholic priests in Pennsylvania had sexually abused children for seven decades, and that their higher-ups helped cover it up. Creating a two-year window for past childhood sex abuse victims to file civil lawsuits was among that grand jury’s recommendations.

A statement from Shapiro’s spokesman, Manuel Bonder, called the House action on Friday “a critical step towards helping survivors receive the day in court they deserve — and Governor Shapiro will continue working with Democrats, Republicans, and Independents in the fight for justice and accountability. The Senate has taken action to support survivors and advance justice in Pennsylvania before — and it is the governor’s hope that they will do so again now.”

A handful of victims’ advocates were on hand to witness the House passage of the bills. They pledged to throw their support behind providing this legal recourse for abuse survivors, including going to court to defend it if necessary.

Victims’ advocate Shaun Dougherty, another abuse survivor, said, “We will not go away until it is done.”

Mike McDonnell, a spokesman for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said he anticipates a survivors’ rally will be organized to keep up the pressure on the Senate.

“We know that they have to act quick on it,” McDonnell said. “Any further delay is just delaying the justice and continuing the lag that has permeated the legislative atmosphere.”

During the House debate on the proposed constitutional amendment, Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair County, also a victim of clergy abuse who championed the issue in the House alongside Rozzi, apologized to victims for the delay in delivering a chance for justice.

“I am sorry and I pray that you will have what you need to heal. It should not have taken this long,” he said, before urging his colleagues to support the constitutional amendment.

Other Republicans pointed out that the wait wouldn’t have been this long if not for an administrative error committed under former Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration that prevented the amendment from getting on the ballot for voter ratification in 2021.

Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon County, said he opposed opening a retroactive window because of the logic and reason behind statutes of limitations.

“The persistent march of time where evidence stales, memories blur and fade, witness detail is lost,” he said. On top of that, Diamond said civil claims can be decided by the opinion of a divided jury based on “a mere preponderance of the evidence.”

Other Republicans raised concern about the potential for civil cases bankrupting school districts and costing taxpayers but that drew strong reactions from Democratic members.

Rep. Maureen Madden, D-Westmoreland County, said, “Many people don’t want a monetary settlement. Most people want their day in court” to expose their abuser.

Rep. La’Tasha Mayes, D-Allegheny County, said she too was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse by an trusted acquaintance. Current law gives her up until age 55 to pursue a civil lawsuit against her abuser but she said other survivors no longer have that opportunity to seek justice.

“This is what leaves them victimized,” Mayes said. “If they can escape the pain, the hurt, the fear, the shame and the trauma … we should make it possible for them to seek justice through a legal remedy but I ask you my colleagues what is the price of a victim’s pain? There is no dollar amount that would undo the effects, the effects that we live everyday of childhood sexual abuse.”

House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler of Lancaster County was among those who supported the constitutional amendment legislation that passed by a 161-40 vote but opposed the measure that provided the reform statutorily, which passed by a 134-67 vote.

“I think ultimately, we, not just as legislators, but we as voters should have the ability to speak on this issue,” Cutler said.

But fellow Republican Rep. Timothy Bonner, a former Mercer County prosecutor, said courts upheld retroactive principle in a case he litigated. He said to those concerned about people making false claims, “I would suggest our courts are not so easily fooled.”

Even in the victims’ community, there appears some disagreement over what the legislation will accomplish.

Children’s advocate Cathleen Palm said victims should get their chance for justice but she also is mindful of damage all the attention is having on the thousands of survivors for whom it won’t deliver closure, healing or justice.

“Nobody is acknowledging that this window even once secured will not be any tool for them because they were abused by someone in their family, abused by another minor, the person who abused them has no money or deep politics or there wasn’t an institution involved,” she said.

Moreover, she said the lawmakers’ focus on the window legislation distracts from issues that could help children currently being abused and neglected.

“Where’s the urgency for them?” Palm said. “Look, at the end of the day, most survivors will tell you that you have to find a way to heal outside of the justice system because it’s hard to get justice. So what we should really be squarely focused on is tending to the kids being victimized today and preventing the next children from ever experiencing what has been traumatizing for so many victims.”

People can find their local sexual assault resource center via a toll free hotline at 1-888-772-7227 or online at If a person suspects a child is being abused, call ChildLine at 1-800-932-0313.