Bucks County senators pressured to support child sex abuse bill
By Kyle Bagenstose
October 08, 2018
Mark Rozzi, a state representative from Berks County who was raped by a priest as a child, visited Bucks County on Monday and called on state Sens. McIlhinney and Tomlinson to support a measure that would open up a two-year window in the statute of limitations.
In 2016, before his colleagues in the state’s House of Representatives, Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, retold how he was raped in a shower by a priest at age 13. He ran from the shower, throwing on his clothing as he fled the church rectory, burying the incident until 2009 when a friend, also a victim of abuse from the priest, took his own life.
“He took the gun, and put it to his chest, and killed himself,” Rozzi said in 2016. “I have tremendous guilt that I didn’t speak up sooner. That if I did, could I have saved other lives?”
Rozzi, elected to office in 2013, has prioritized changing the state’s laws to allow victims of sexual abuse to pursue legal claims. His efforts have fallen short so far, but a bill that would open a two-year window for victims of any age to pursue civil claims is on the cusp, having passed the House and landed in the Senate late last month.
With just a few voting days left in Harrisburg this session, the bill’s fate in the Senate is in question. Those watching the legislation say the Republican senators in the southeast region will play a crucial swing role, which brought Rozzi to Doylestown on Monday to push for the bill.
Standing before the county courthouse with a group of about 20 fellow politicians and supporters, Rozzi referenced the recently released Pennsylvania grand jury report conducted by Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office, which detailed widespread sexual abuse of children in Catholic dioceses throughout Pennsylvania.
“Anybody who has read this grand jury report knows how egregious and heinous these crimes that were committed were,” Rozzi said. “You should be able to make up your mind right away and say ‘I need to stand with victims.’ ”
Rozzi said that local state Sens. Robert “Tommy” Tomlinson, R-6, of Bensalem, and Robert Mensch, R-24, of Marlborough, had up to that point been undecided on the legislation. He admonished them.
“They need to stand up and say they support victims, and if they can’t do that, people need to vote them out of office,” Rozzi said.
Asked for comment, Mensch said in a phone interview Monday that he would “vote for the best bill that we have in front us.”
Mensch referenced a separate solution touted by Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, which would establish a victims compensation fund in which the church would issue financial awards to victims independent of any civil or criminal claims.
“I believe the victims deserve some compensation, some closure,” Mensch said. “I will probably vote for it regardless, whether it’s a (statutory) window or a victims fund.”
Asked for comment, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference referred to a statement saying it was also in favor of a compensation fund.
“We recognize our responsibility to provide an opportunity for sexual abuse survivors whose cases are time-barred from pursuing civil claims to share their experiences, identify their abusers, and receive compensation to assist their healing and recovery,” the statement read, adding it believed opening up a window on the statute of limitations would bankrupt its dioceses and prevent them from providing social services.
Tomlinson’s office did not return repeated requests for comment.
State Senator Charles McIlhinney, R-10, of Doylestown Borough, also did not return requests for comment, and a sign on his Doylestown office said it was closed for Columbus Day. McIlhinney, who is retiring, told The Philadelphia Inquirer last week he believed the bill was unconstitutional and was being pushed by lawyers looking to make a profit.
“Half that money would end up in a lawyer’s pocket,” he told the news organization.
McIlhinney is not alone in his belief the bill may be unconstitutional. If passed, it would open a two-year window for victims of any age to pursue a civil claim. Currently, victims alleging abuse have only to age 30 to file a claim, which would also be extended to age 50 under the law.
State Rep. Craig Staats, R-145, of Richland, was the only state representative from Bucks County who voted against Rozzi’s amendment to Senate Bill 261, which added the window. He said he was concerned the measure adds punishment retroactively to crimes committed in the past.
“I have no problem with lifting the statute of limitations moving forward,” Staats said. “I have a problem with retroactivity.”
Staats said he was also concerned that statutes of limitations have value, as memories fade and potential witnesses pass away. He also said the bill opens up the possibility for claims against public institutions such as schools, but creates two different burdens of proof.
“The threshold for proof (for a church) is much lower than someone suing a public institution,” he said.
Although Staats voted against the amendment, which passed by a 171-23 margin, he ultimately voted for the final bill before it passed onto the Senate.
State Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware County, was the sole Democrat to vote against Rozzi’s amendment and side with Republicans such as Staats. He cited similar reasons, saying statutes of limitations serve “legitimate purposes.”
“It’s very difficult to create an alibi defense when so much time has passed,” Vitali said, adding that although the bill would likely bring more claims against guilty priests, it also might wrongly convict innocent ones who can’t mount a defense. “It’s better letting 10 guilty people go free than to convict one innocent person.”
He was also concerned about opening schools up to lawsuits.
“The problem here is, who is going to be paying for those verdicts?” Vitali said, adding he believed it to be taxpayers. “I understand why victims should be compensated, but not by people who pay school taxes.”
Supporters speaking in favor of the bill Monday provided responses to many of the criticisms.
Marci Hamilton, an Upper Makefield resident and CEO of Child USA, a think tank working to prevent child abuse, said the inclusion of schools in the bill is important.
“There is no cause of action right now if your child is assaulted (in school),” Hamilton said, referencing a separate grand jury report released last year that detailed decades of abuse at the Solebury School. “You can sue if you slipped on the sidewalk, but you can’t sue a school district if your child was sexually assaulted.”
Elizabeth Breece, a Northampton resident, said it was important to her that reports of abuse were handled within the judicial system as opposed to through a private fund. Breece said a member of her extended family was found guilty of sexually abusing a minor, and she believes it’s important all such individuals be added under Megan’s Law.
“It’s not about money, it’s about naming the predators,” Breece said.
Rozzi said he believed concerns about the measure being unconstitutional were unfounded, noting that Shapiro’s grand jury report recommended it.
Rozzi’s visit to the courthouse also gave numerous individuals running for office an opportunity to voice support. Linda Fields, Mensch’s opponent for state Senate, said it was an easy decision for her.
“Open the damn window,” Fields said. “Let the healing begin and let the victims be able to speak.”
State Rep. Tina Davis, D-141, of Bristol Township, is challenging Tomlinson. She said Rozzi had to fight “powerful entities” to advance the bill.
“This is our chance, and I’m proud to be here today,” Davis said.
Two others running for state Senate — Democrats Steve Santarsiero, who is running for McIlhinney’s seat, and Maria Collett, who is running to replace retiring Sen. Stewart Greenleaf — also spoke in favor of the bill Monday.
Santarsiero’s opponent, state Rep. Marguerite Quinn, voted for Rozzi’s amendment and said in an email she would continue the support if elected as senator. State Senator Greenleaf, R-12, of Upper Moreland, did not return requests for comment but told the Inquirer he would recuse himself from a vote because his law firm previously represented a religious order in a similar matter in Delaware.
His son Stewart Greenleaf Jr. is the Republican candidate for his father’s seat and wrote in an email he would, “Vote for extending the statute of limitations for older victims as long as we ensure the bill can withstand expected constitutional challenges.”
Rozzi said Monday he and Scarnati are having discussions about the legislation, and that Scarnati is still “pushing” the fund but has “taken steps” toward the idea of opening a window. But Rozzi said time was tight, with about three legislative days left to get a deal done.
“If the senators decide to run the clock out and not do anything, that’s on them, then they just committed political suicide,” Rozzi said. “The voters out there are watching. The world is watching what’s happening in Pennsylvania.”