Pennsylvania House to again consider child sex abuse bills
By MARK SCOLFORO
HARRISBURG, Pa. — Two bills that could make it easier for victims of child sexual abuse to file lawsuits, an issue that roiled the General Assembly last year, are expected to get votes next week in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.
House Judiciary Chairman Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin, said Thursday he supports the pair of proposals scheduled for committee votes Monday.
“It’s not perfect and everybody’s not going to like it,” said Kauffman. “But getting something done is really the key here, getting something accomplished.”
One bill would eliminate the criminal statute of limitations for child sexual abuse crimes entirely and give victims of future abuse until age 55 to file lawsuits. Current law gives victims until age 30 to pursue criminal charges and until age 50 to sue.
The other proposal would begin the process of amending the Pennsylvania Constitution to allow a two-year retroactive window for lawsuits over past abuse.
A final House vote is expected Wednesday, and passage would send them to the state Senate.
Both bills, introduced a week ago, are sponsored by Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, and Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair. Rozzi has spoken publicly about being victimized by a priest when he was a boy and Gregory said Thursday he was abused by two 13-year-old boys when he was 10.
Gregory said he is thankful he can “use that experience, to be able to talk about it and let people know that you don’t have to live with the shame and the guilt and the embarrassment if you choose not to.”
The House in September voted overwhelmingly for a retroactive two-year window for victims of child sexual abuse to sue, but the measure was blocked by Senate Republicans. The Senate’s top-ranking member, President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, was among those who argued retroactivity was unconstitutional.
“Even those who voted for it still had some concerns, and those concerns can go away for everybody involved,” Gregory said.
Constitutional amendments must pass both chambers in two consecutive two-year legislative terms before going to voters for final approval.
Scarnati’s chief of staff, Drew Crompton, told Pennlive.com last week he was not sure how the legislation might fare in the Senate.
“I don’t want to be too dismissive of the product because we do think it’s a substantial improvement from prior drafts or prior pieces of legislation,” Crompton told Pennlive.com.
In August, a grand jury produced a report that said about 300 Roman Catholic priests had abused children at six of the state’s eight dioceses over seven decades, and accused church hierarchy of covering it up.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, said he supports a set of recommendations in the grand jury report.
“Those reforms have strong support in the Legislature and would strengthen mandatory reporting laws, clarify the law on confidentiality agreements to ensure victims know they can speak with law enforcement, eliminate the criminal statute of limitations for sexual abuse, and open a window in the civil statute of limitations so victims can finally have their voices heard in court,” said Shapiro spokesman Joe Grace.
Catholic dioceses around the state have in recent months been setting up and operating victim compensation funds, with procedures to handle claims from people who say they were abused as children by priests.
In neighboring New Jersey, the Democratic-led Legislature sent Gov. Phil Murphy, also a Democrat, legislation that would allow child victims to sue until they turn 55 or within seven years of their first realization that the abuse caused them harm. The current limit is two years.
Adult victims in New Jersey also would have seven years from the discovery of the abuse. The bill would give a two-year window to victims who were previously barred by the statute of limitation, and it makes it easier for victims to seek damages from institutions. Murphy has signaled he is likely to sign it.