CITY Boy Implores Senate to Vote on Sex Abuse Bill
By Russ O'Reilly
October 25, 2018
Tommy Williams, 15, of Altoona, stood in front of a crowd on the steps of the Capitol Rotunda in Harrisburg. He was the youngest speaker by far at the rally Wednesday organized by Pennsylvania Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm.
About 80 people including survivors of sexual assault implored the Senate to return to session and vote on a bill that would create a two-year window to allow child sexual abuse victims to file civil suits despite the statue of limitations.
The person who abused Williams was not a Catholic priest. But Williams spoke for many now-adult victims who might have been too afraid to speak up as children when they were abused. Now time has gone by and they are prohibited as adults from suing their alleged abuser or the church that allegedly covered up the abuse.
In July, Attorney General Josh Shapiro released a grand jury report that outlined abuse of more than 1,000 children by hundreds of priests in six Pennsylvania dioceses since the 1950s. Separate investigations into the dioceses of Altoona-Johnstown and Philadelphia had been completed earlier.
Current state law allows a child sex abuse victim until they are 30 years old to file civil lawsuits or 50 years old to file criminal charges.
A proposal for a two-year retroactive “window to justice” passed the House in September, but it stalled in the Senate.
“I would like any senator denying the rights of those victims to look at me and think of the adults around me as children,” Williams said.
“Now tell them they don’t deserve to have their abusers named. This is your chance to show them they are believed,” Williams said. “Think about all the lives lost because those who should have protected them hurt them,” he said. “Show them that all victims matter.”
Williams disclosed his experience of abuse before his 10th birthday. Storm introduced Williams at the rally and said he has been dedicated to speaking wherever he can to empower other children to report abuse.
The retroactive window was added by House Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, to a bill that originated in the Senate. The original Senate proposal abolished the statute of limitations moving forward but purposely excluded the retroactive part.
Lawmakers against Rozzi’s amendment said the state constitution prohibits a retroactive change.
However, Storm said she is hopeful that the Senate could return before Thanksgiving to vote on it. She believes the bill would receive the 26 yes votes in the Senate to pass.
“The problem is only one person has ability to call them back to session. It’s Senator Scarnati,” Storm said.
Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, is among the senators who deem that retroactive window unconstitutional.
The retroactive proposal had failed in the Senate before, in 2016 after the statewide grand jury report of the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese outlined child abuse by 50 priests and religious leaders and a cover-up over 40 years.
Shaun Dougherty of Johnstown was a victim named in that report. He also spoke Wednesday at the rally. He promised Scarnati that while the Senate takes a break, victim advocates will not.
“We will not adjourn,” he said. “We will be back in January, February, March … 2019 or 2080,” he said.
As victim advocates hold onto hope that the Legislature will ultimately pass Rozzi’s proposal, Storm said she believes victim advocates are willing to compromise.
Prior to the last scheduled voting day, Scarnati offered an alternative proposal. He’s proposed a window to sue perpetrators but not the church as an institution. Instead, the victim would have access to a Victim Compensation Fund offered by churches.
While that proposal was decried by some, including Rozzi, as giving bishops and insurance companies immunity from public court procedings, Storm noted that method could be preferred by some victims.
“We realize there are victims who would rather have the fund because it is more discrete,” Storm said. “We are open to the compromise. Come back and make it happen,” she said, urging Scarnati. “We have the votes. All you have to do is bring them back before Thanksgiving. It will be a very quick vote.”
A call to Scarnati’s office was not returned Wednesday.