The state House of Representatives will re-examine a law next month that would erase the statute of limitations on the filing of criminal charges against child sexual abusers in the wake of a disturbing report about pedophile priests in Pennsylvania.
It will be an “uphill battle,” however, to persuade the state Senate to include in a bill language to reopen a window that would allow victims to have two years from passage of a new law to file civil suits against their abusers, said state Rep. Mark Rozzi, a Berks County Democrat.
“The report is too powerful,” said Rozzi, who said he was raped by a priest at 13 and ran for office to reform legislation regarding similar cases.
He was referring to a statewide grand jury report released Tuesday that listed 301 “predator priests” in six of the state’s eight dioceses and more than 1,000 victims over the past seven decades. (Philadelphia and Altoona-Johnstown dioceses were the subjects of previous grand juries.) The list included 99 priests in the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, including two who once served Washington County and were part of a group that groomed children for sex, rewarding them with gold crosses.
“(Lawmakers) can only run and hide for so long,” Rozzi said Thursday. “At some point the Legislature is going to respond.”
Rozzi said House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana, has announced he intends to call up the issue once the session resumes Sept. 12 and allow Rozzi to introduce amendments that would, in the future, give victims their “two years back” and eliminate the statute of limitations on criminal prosecutions in child sexual abuse cases.
“The actions revealed through the grand jury report are heinous and shameful,” Reed said. “We cannot allow safe havens for child sexual predators; it is a betrayal of justice.”
Any changes to the bill in the House would need to be returned to the Senate for a vote, said state Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Carroll, who isn’t a supporter of a retroactive opening of the two-year window to file in civil court.
Bartolotta said it’s difficult to bring a lawsuit by the victims listed in the report because many of them are in their 60s and 70s and their abusers are no longer living.
“Everyone is appalled,” Bartolotta said. “It’s disgusting.”
She said the House needs to recall Senate Bill 261, which was approved in January 2017, to strip away the criminal statute of limitations, and send it to Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk for his signature.
“We need stricter penalties on known sexual abuse against children,” she said.
Rozzi said lobbyists, including those with the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and liability insurance federations, “spend a ton of money on Capitol Hill,” in attempts to limit the window for the filing of such civil lawsuits.
He said the last time this law was brought up there were 39 lobbyists working the 50 senators.
“The ink isn’t dried on the report, and the conference is already lobbying,” Rozzi said.
The conference declined to comment Thursday on its lobbying efforts.
“The time to discuss legislation will come later,” according to conference spokeswoman Amy B. Hill.
“Our focus now is on improving ways that survivors and their families can recover as they continue through a difficult healing process,” Hill wrote in response to an email inquiry.
Lawsuits filed by sexual abuse victims have cost the Catholic church millions of dollars, causing some dioceses to go broke.
Fifteen dioceses nationwide declared bankruptcy in recent years after having collectively paid $542.6 million in settlements to victims, the Idaho Statesman reported in February.
The world’s oldest and largest support group for victims of sexual abuse in institutional settings, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, is pressing Pennsylvania lawmakers to do more to protect children.
“We need Pennsylvania lawmakers specifically and all lawmakers in general to make sure that the courthouse doors are open to all survivors of these heinous crimes and cover-ups, no matter how long ago the abuse occurred,” said SNAP spokeswoman Judy Jones.
Pennsylvania legislators “need to lift the civil and criminal statute of limitations for child sex crimes and open a window of opportunity for older victims to file a lawsuit to expose the truth and obtain justice,” she continued.
“The Catholic church fights that tooth and nail. They pay lobbyists big bucks to oppose any kind of statute-of-limitation reform.”
State Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Jefferson, said state lawmakers should follow the recommendations set forth by the grand jury as announced Tuesday by state Attorney General Josh Shapiro.
The grand jury report recommended the creation of the two-year civil window “for sex abuse victims who couldn’t file lawsuits before.”
“Victims don’t just need sexual criminals prosecuted; they need care and compensation for harm done by the abusers and the institutions that empowered them,” the report stated.
Staff writer Barbara S. Miller contributed to this report.