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House Moves Key Bill Amendment Allowing Retroactive Child Sex Abuse Suits

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Representative Mark Rozzi on September 18, 2018.

The state House has approved an amendment that would open a two-year window for child sex abuse victims to sue in cases on which the statute of limitations has run out.

However the amendment—and the bill it’s attached to—still faces a tough road to final passage.

The bill applies to all child sex abuse cases, but it’s being debated in the context of abuse within the Catholic Church. And it got an extra push this summer after a damning grand jury report revealed alleged widespread abuse in Pennsylvania dioceses on an international scale.

Current state law lets child sexual abuse victims sue until they’re 30. The House’s bill would extend that period and get rid of time limits on criminal prosecutions in the future.

The chamber could pass it Tuesday; it would then move to the Senate, which supports most of its provisions.

One part could pose a problem, however.

Senate leaders have emphatically opposed opening a two-year window for statute-limited victims to sue their abusers retroactively—arguing it’s unconstitutional and would bankrupt churches.

At a rally in support of the amendment, former GOP House Speaker Denny O’Brien, who worked to extend protections to victims of childhood sexual abuse in his home city of Philadelphia, said there’s no guarantee the courts would find the amendment out of order.

He added, he thinks those who oppose it are on the wrong side of history.

“How can you, on any side of the aisle, say that you support families if you in any way restrict these victims from coming forward and telling their story?” O’Brien asked.

As for concerns about financial hits to churches, he said that shouldn’t be a deterrent.

“It’s the only way you’re going to stop this,” he said, raising his voice. “By putting institutions at risk. It is the only answer. The only answer.”

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati is one of the most prominent opponents of the two-year window.

He has proposed setting up a compensation fund for the victims instead—a measure also supported by the Catholic Church.

The House ultimately passed the two-year retroactivity window handily, in a 171-23 vote.

Its sponsor is Berks County Democrat Mark Rozzi, who says he was assaulted by a priest.

On the House floor, he appealed for his colleagues to put themselves in his shoes.

“Thirteen years old,” he said. “Getting raped in a shower by Father Graff. Do you think I’m thinking about what a statute of limitations is? And then only finding I had five years criminally to come forward and two years civilly.”

“Legislators have failed in the past,” he added. “Today we make this right. Victims have waited long enough.”