Pa. House moves key amendment allowing retroactive child sex abuse suits

Kelly Williams carries a sign voicing support for legislation that would change the statute of limitations for child sex crimes, during a march in Harrisburg, Pa., Monday, Sept. 24, 2018. At right is her husband Brent. A proposal to give victims of child sexual abuse a two-year window to sue over allegations that would otherwise be too old to pursue was overwhelmingly approved by the state House on Monday, as supporters cheered from the gallery. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)

Kelly Williams carries a sign voicing support for legislation that would change the statute of limitations for child sex crimes, during a march in Harrisburg, Pa., Monday, Sept. 24, 2018. At right is her husband Brent. A proposal to give victims of child sexual abuse a two-year window to sue over allegations that would otherwise be too old to pursue was overwhelmingly approved by the state House on Monday, as supporters cheered from the gallery. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)

The state House has approved an amendment that would open a two-year window for child sex abuse victims to file civil suits 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 detailed in a damning grand jury report released this summer into six of the state’s eight dioceses.

Current state law lets child sexual abuse victims sue until they’re 30. The House’s bill would also 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.

But 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 Dennis 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, R-Jefferson, is one of the most prominent opponents of the two-year window.

Instead, he proposes setting up a compensation fund for the victims that would be overseen by the state — a measure also supported by the Catholic Church.

The sponsor of the retroactivity bill is Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, who says he was assaulted by a priest as a teenager.

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.”

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

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