The Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a public hearing Monday morning on the constitutionality of House Bill 1947, which passed that chamber with an overwhelming majority.
The bill would abolish the criminal statute of limitations for all future crimes of child sexual abuse. It would also give future victims more time to file civil cases by raising the maximum age to do so from 30 to 50.
The bill was introduced after the attorney general’s office released a report in March detailing the cover-up of sexual abuse by more than 50 priests and religious leaders in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese over several decades.
The committee has not released a list of witnesses to testify at the hearing, but it is clear the bill faces opposition from Catholic organizations around the state, including the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference. Their ire has mainly been drawn by an amendment to the bill from state Rep. Mark Rozzi that would make the change in civil statute retroactive, meaning people now between the ages of 30 and 50 could file suits over childhood abuse.
In an emailed statement, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference called that measure “blatantly unfair.” It said, due to state law, that it will be easier for people to sue private institutions, such as churches, than public ones.
“The Catholic Church has a sincere commitment to the emotional and spiritual well-being of individuals who have been impacted by the crime of childhood sexual abuse, no matter how long ago the crime was committed,” the statement continued. “But bankrupting the ministries of today’s Catholics, like their parishes, schools, and charities, is not justice.”
Opponents of the bill may be spending a fair amount of cash to drive that point home. Rozzi, D-Berks, said it’s been hard for him to walk through the Capitol over the last few weeks without spotting lobbyists paid for by Catholic organizations.
“Only thing I can say is the reason they’re spending this much money is because they know what they’ve done, and they’re afraid to let those records out,” Rozzi said. “If we get into those secret archives, and the people find out what they did, they may want to take some of these churches down brick by brick.”
Rozzi’s advocacy for the bill stems from his own experience of abuse by a priest.
Even if this bill passes through committee and the full Senate, Rozzi said the fight is far from over. He believes the issue will ultimately be decided by the state Supreme Court.