Once again, lawmakers will try to reform Pa.’s sexual abuse laws

"I've been in this House fighting for six years trying to get the statutory change, and it hasn't gone anywhere. So why not start this constitutional process..."

  • Katie Meyer

(Harrisburg) — A pair of bills that would overhaul the laws governing child sexual abuse in Pennsylvania have cleared their first hurdle in the state House–passing through the Judiciary Committee with a near-unanimous vote.

Backers of the measures say they’re trying a different strategy after repeatedly failing to get previous iterations of the bills through the Senate.

The primary bill that passed Monday would get rid of the criminal statute of limitations for future child abuse cases and extend the statute for civil suits.

Among other things, it would also hold institutions responsible if they knew about abuse but failed to stop it.

The reforms have been in the works for years, but got traction last summer after a sweeping grand jury report about abuse in Pennsylvania’s Catholic dioceses.

But Senate Republicans objected to a provision that would have opened a temporary window for suits in abuse cases for which the statute of limitations has expired. They said it might be unconstitutional, and that made the measure vulnerable to legal challenges.

The entire bill ultimately crashed.

Berks County Representative Mark Rozzi, the Democrat sponsoring the bill, said this time around he switched tactics and took that provision out.

It isn’t gone, though.

Instead of being included in Rozzi’s main bill, the window for retroactive lawsuits it now wrapped into a second measure sponsored by Blair County Republican Jim Gregory.

Katie Meyer / WITF

Representatives Jim Gregory and Mark Rozzi speak to reporters after the successful passage of their bills from the House Judiciary Committee.

That bill would amend the state constitution to explicitly allow two years for lawsuits on old abuse cases.

“I’ve been in this house fighting for six years trying to get the statutory change, and it hasn’t gone anywhere,” Rozzi said. “So why not start this constitutional process to try to change that way, which might take two to three years, versus doing nothing?”

In his six years in the House, Rozzi has been open about the reason for his commitment to statute of limitations reform: when he was a young teenager, he was abused by a priest.

When his bill failed last session, Senate Republicans said along with constitutional concerns, they were also worried it might bankrupt churches. At one point, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati pitched a compromise version of the measure that would have opened a retroactivity window but wouldn’t have applied it to institutions.

Rozzi said this session, he’s hoping the caucus will at least take a vote.

“We’re going to put the Senate on notice,” he said. “Like hey, you’ve got a bill that you can pass and stand behind. Are you going to do it, or are you going to walk away? And if you walk away then really, was it constitutionality or was it something else?”

He and Gregory said at the very least, they’re confident the bills will pass in their own chamber.

“I can’t make the Senate do what’s right,” Rozzi said. “We can only do what we think is right here in the House.”

Debate in the House Judiciary Committee ahead of the bill’s passage was mostly positive.

The sole dissenting vote came from Republican Paul Schemel, of Franklin County.

He said while he respects the work Rozzi and others have done on the legislation, he is concerned that getting rid of the criminal statute of limitations for assault cases would compromise the rights of the accused.

Typically, he said, those limits should only be discarded in murder cases because “there is always physical evidence and the individual who is the victim is not available to testify, so it is an exceptional case.”

Gregory said later, he absolutely believes childhood sexual abuse qualifies as an exceptional case.

Like Rozzi, the freshman representative has a personal reason for wanting to overhaul the statute of limitations. He said when he was ten, he was abused by older boys he considered friends.

When he finally talked about it, he said, “I was 46. I’m 56 now. That’s 36 years later that it took for me.”

As for concerns victims might not be able to testify accurately many years later?

Gregory said he doesn’t think that holds water.

“I can still feel the shingles on the side of the garage at my fingertips as I was being abused,” he said. “I can still remember the smell of the shed that I was in, the smell of the gasoline, the smell of the grass…I can’t expect you to understand what this feels like. I would just ask you to accept that this is a reality.”

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