Push to nix Pennsylvania statute of limitations to follow church sex abuse report
HARRISBURG — A renewed push for legislation to abolish Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations in sex abuse cases will follow the publication of a sweeping grand jury report on allegations of child sexual abuse and cover-ups within six Roman Catholic dioceses around the state, a lawmaker said Tuesday.
Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, said he will be prepared to seek a vote in the state House of Representatives on legislation that carries provisions sought by victims.
The House two years ago overwhelmingly approved Rozzi’s legislation to lift time limits for authorities to pursue charges of child sexual abuse and for those onetime child victims to sue their attackers and institutions that covered it up. Rozzi’s bill also would have established a two-year window for victims to sue for damages if they are now older than the current legal age limit.
Currently, state law bars onetime child victims from suing for damages if they have turned 30 and bars authorities from filing criminal charges if the person making the claim of child sexual abuse has turned 50.
The Senate, however, rejected key provisions, including the two-year window. Rozzi, who has told of his rape as a 13-year-old boy by a Roman Catholic priest, said he is hoping the grand jury’s report changes enough minds for his bill to pass the Senate this time.
“My instinct was if we really want to get what we need here, the public policy that we believe is best for victims, we have to wait for this report to come out and that’s going to give us that leverage to not only move this bill through the House, but to put enough pressure” on Senate leaders, Rozzi said.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro could release results of the two-year investigation this month. Victim advocates say it will be the biggest and most exhaustive ever by a state.
Rep. Pat Harkins, D-Erie, said he has spoken to victims who were among the dozens who testified before the grand jury.
“As a practicing Catholic, I’m prepared to hear the worst and, believe me, I know some of what’s coming, just from the Erie diocese, and it’s sickening,” Harkins told a rally crowd organized by Rozzi on Tuesday. “What you’re going to hear is going to rock your faith. You’re going to say to yourself, ‘how can I be a part of this?’ And I anticipate a number of church pews being empty after this. … To think that this was allowed to go on and ruin people’s lives is unconscionable.”
In an 11-page opinion last week, the supervising grand jury judge rejected a challenge by unidentified parties to releasing the report, and said it will carry recommendations to change state laws.
Previously released grand jury reports from investigations into the other two Pennsylvania dioceses — Philadelphia and Altoona-Johnstown — have advocated lifting the statutes of limitations and allowing a two-year window for victims to sue for damages.
The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania, which represents for-profit insurers, have opposed allowing a two-year window.
Other states have taken such a step, although some state senators say they believe it to be unconstitutional in Pennsylvania. Advocates say they believe it is constitutional and that courts should be the judge.
The Senate most recently voted last year to eliminate the statute of limitations in criminal prosecutions. The bill also would remove any time limit for a future victim or a victim who is not yet 30 to sue the perpetrator, a co-conspirator or someone who knew of the abuse but failed to report it to authorities.
The Senate bill, however, would not entirely do away with time limits for a victim to sue an institution, such as a church or a school. It caps the victim’s age at 50.