Mark Rozzi Pitches Another Push for Retroactive Reform to Child Sex Crimes
By vey DeJesus
June 12, 2018
In all the years that Rep. Mark Rozzi has been fighting to reform state child sex crimes laws, he has excoriated the power brokers for the Roman Catholic Church for pushing back on any reform legislation.
On Tuesday, just weeks away from the release of the findings of a state probe into clergy sex abuse across Pennsylvania, Rozzi once again called for measures to expand the law, this time noting that: "Child sex abuse is not just a Catholic problem."
At a Capitol rally, Rozzi invited victims, survivors and relatives of victims from across the dark specter of child sex abuse to call on lawmakers and influential power brokers to get behind legislation that would expand the statute of limitations, giving past and future victims broader opportunities to seek legal recourse against predators.
Flanked by whistleblowers from the Jehovah Witness church, which is embroiled in a worldwide child sex abuse scandal, a Miss Pennsylvania title-holder from Wilkes-Barre, as well as victims from the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Rozzi implored lawmakers to support his amendment language to a pending bill that would reform statute of limitations.
"Childhood sex abuse is a plague that has scourged this state and beyond," he said. "The bishops have the unique opportunity to demonstrate the church's commitment to ending the culture of abuse and its systemic cover-up."
A victim of clergy sex abuse, Rozzi noted that while child sex abuse was not unique to the Catholic Church, "the Roman Catholic Church gets a gold star for paying millions of dollars to block justice for all victims."
Rozzi, who at the age of 13 was raped in a shower by his priest at Holy Guardian Angels in Reading, became a vocal supporter of changes to state laws after two friends - also victims of priest abuse - committed suicide.
The Berks County Democrat has repeatedly over the years pushed reform legislation that would extend retroactive provisions. He has missed the target.
This time, Rozzi is pushing for his so-called "Real Deal" legislation - an amendment to Senate Bill 261 - that would extend to adults who were abused as children a two-year window of time to come forward and seek justice.
As currently drafted, SB 261 would give child victims until age 50 to bring civil lawsuits against abusers or those employers who were allegedly negligent in failing to stop them. At present, the window to sue expires at age 30.
The proposed Senate bill would also eliminate any statute of limitations on criminal prosecutions for child sexual abuse crimes in the future. The bill was sponsored by Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County. It has passed out of the Senate and the House Judiciary Committee and is awaiting full consideration by the House.
"We are not going anywhere until we get justice," Rozzi said. "Close your doors to the lobbyists around here and open your doors to justice."
Rozzi's "Real Deal" incorporates recommendations out of the 2003, 2005 and 2011 Philadelphia Archdiocese Grand Juries and the 2016 Altoona/Johnstown Diocese Report.
Those recommendations called for the elimination of criminal and civil statutes of limitations for childhood sexual assault claims, and a one-time civil two year "window" of opportunity for past victims, who have aged out of statute, to bring suit.
Rozzi has long charged that some legislative leaders have been more concerned with protecting powerful lobbyists such as the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the insurance industry than in identifying and punishing abusers.
The "Real Deal" includes the same "sovereign immunity" language that passed the Senate in January, which allows for governmental entities - such as public schools - to be sued for negligence. Additionally, the amended language includes a "severability" clause, which would, in the case of a challenge to one one provision of the law, permit the remaining provisions to stand.
Amy Hill, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, declined to comment for this story, in light of the upcoming grand jury report.
"We do not believe it's appropriate at this time for us to discuss legislative issues," she said.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro is expected to release the findings of the grand jury by the end of June.
Shapiro's office in 2016 empaneled a grand jury to investigate allegations of child sex abuse in the dioceses of Harrisburg, Pittsburg, Allentown, Scranton, Erie and Greensburg.
The respective six bishops of the dioceses late last month received a copy of the report, which remains sealed by court order. The 800-plus page report details findings based on a review of a half-million pages of diocesan documents and the testimony of dozens of witnesses, including one sitting bishop.
On Tuesday, Rozzi had the support of some of his General Assembly colleagues. Rep. Pat Harkins, D-Erie, noted that he was a Catholic and supported reform to the law in order to provide comfort to victims.
"We need to reinforce that we take very seriously what has happened to them and hopefully bring some closure to the nightmare they have had to endure through no fault of their own," he said.
Guest speakers included Teresa Lancaster, lawyer and "Jane Roe" in a lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Baltimore and the late Father Joseph Maskell, whom she says repeatedly raped her over the course of years while she was a student at a Catholic school in Baltimore.
Lancaster's story is the subject of the Netflix documentary, "The Keepers."
She explained that during court depositions church lawyers treated her like a criminal. Her case was thrown out because the statute of limitations had expired.
"I went through six days of depositions and was grilled with questions that no sexual abuse survivor should ever have to answer," Lancaster said. "It took 20 more years after that before I received a letter of apology from the archdiocese."