After years of internal fights, Pa. legislature passes statute of limitations overhaul

People abused as children will be able to file criminal suits against their abusers no matter how much time has passed.

The Pennsylvania State Capitol is seen in this file photo. (Tom Downing/WITF)

The Pennsylvania State Capitol is seen in this file photo. (Tom Downing/WITF)

Rep. Mark Rozzi (D-Berks) has been trying to overhaul Pennsylvania’s statutes of limitations on child sexual abuse ever since he joined the state House seven years ago.

Sitting in his Harrisburg office Wednesday afternoon, he was almost giddy at the prospect of his bill passing the state Senate in a few hours.

But still, he noted, “it’s crazy to think about how long it has taken.”

Rozzi has said his own abuse by a priest drove him to run for office in the first place, and to take on the commonwealth’s relatively restrictive statutes of limitations.

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But for the last few years, he and supporters of his legislation have been in a bitter stalemate with Senate Republican leaders, who were worried that opening a window for retroactive lawsuits on old abuse cases — one of the key provisions in the package — might be unconstitutional, and would bankrupt churches.

Rozzi speaking to reporters in October 2018, after the legislature’s last attempt at a statute of limitations overhaul crumbled. (Marc Levy/AP Photo)

A 2018 grand jury report on decades of alleged child sex abuse in Pennsylvania’s Roman Catholic Dioceses added a sense of urgency to the negotiations.

The compromise that eventually won approval by the legislature was hammered out over the last year, and is mostly contained in two bills.

One would get rid of the statute of limitations for people to file criminal charges against their abusers. It would also extend the statute for civil suits to the victim’s 55th birthday. Those provisions would only apply to people who are abused when they are 23 or younger.

The second would amend the constitution to make it clear that retroactive lawsuits on old abuse cases are legal. It would create a two-year window for those suits, starting in 2021.

Some abuse victims have been dismayed by the compromise because amendments take two legislative sessions to pass. State Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm said it creates uncertainty.

“We could be looking at an extra four years, potentially, tacked on to this,” she said. “Survivors don’t want to wait. They would rather see it go to the courts in 2020 and let the courts decide.”

She added, though, that she considers the bill “progress.” And she said she’s confident legislative leaders — particularly Senate Republicans who have been opposed to the measure — are now committed to passing it.

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-Centre) said as much. The goal, he said, is to let victims heal.

“It may not be at the pace that some want, but at the same time I do believe it’ll begin a pathway for victims to seek a way to compensate for all the damages that have been done,” he said. “That’s important.”

During extended, emotional Senate floor debate, Katie Muth (D-Montgomery) was one of several lawmakers who pitched a slew of amendments that would have broadened the proposals to allow more abuse victims to sue, and would have passed a window for retroactive suits as a simple bill, instead of an amendment.

They all failed.

Muth urged her fellow lawmakers to look at this action as the beginning, not the end of Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations overhaul.

“This is a step in the right direction, but we’re leaving many behind,” she said. “Rape is the most underreported crime in the United States.”

Rozzi said he understands why some victims aren’t happy with his compromise.

But he added, “I have to be responsible for them and make sure the path I give them is successful. I don’t want to take them down a road that’s a dead end that’s ruled unconstitutional.”

The way he sees it, churches would probably move quickly to protect their assets if a window for retroactive lawsuits were passed—particularly churches that are already putting millions of dollars into internal compensation funds for victims.

If, for instance, a retroactive window were to open tomorrow, Rozzi estimated about three-quarters of Pennsylvania’s Roman Catholic dioceses “would file Chapter 11 reorganizational bankruptcy, and victims would probably see less compensation than they would through the compensation fund.”

Because the legislature is opting for a slower constitutional amendment, he said, churches will have time to “close these compensation funds out, take a step back, reorganize the church, and then the window will open in about a year and a half.”

A spokesperson for Pennsylvania’s Catholic Conference, a longtime opponent of retroactive abuse lawsuits, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The constitutional amendment that would open the retroactive lawsuit window cleared its first hurdle late Wednesday night: initial passage by the legislature. Lawmakers will need to pass it once more next session before it goes to voters in a statewide referendum.

The bill extending statutes of limitations going forward needs final approval by the House, which is expected to be a formality. Then it will head to Democratic Governor Tom Wolf’s desk, along with related measures that would clarify penalties for covering up abuse and make sure confidentiality agreements don’t prohibit victims from talking to police.

Wolf is expected to sign them soon.

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