UPDATE Pa. House adopts bills towards opening legal window for child sex abuse victims

Feb. 25—HARRISBURG — A special legislative session in the Pennsylvania House that began in early January and resumed this week after six weeks of partisan gridlock in the state Capitol ended Friday with the resounding adoption of separate bills that would open pathways to legal recourse for survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

A proposed constitutional amendment and a proposed statute amending existing law passed on separate votes with bipartisan support. Both advance to the state Senate where they face an uncertain outcome.

The push was borne out of grand jury investigations that began in 2005 into systemic abuse occurring within Roman Catholic dioceses across Pennsylvania.

Shaun Dougherty, president of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, was among victims' rights advocates present for Friday's vote. He, too, is a survivor of child sex abuse.

"You know as well as I do that this has never been about money. We've always wanted our day in court. We've always wanted to be counted as citizens of Pennsylvania, that our voices matter," Dougherty said.

The Republican majority in the Senate carried a near party-line vote in January that married an abuse-related amendment with two additional amendment proposals fiercely opposed by Democrats: Universal voter ID and empowering the Legislature in overturning state agency regulations. Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman, R-Armstrong/Indiana/Jefferson/Westmoreland, has said that the Senate fulfilled its obligation and that it's up to the House to act.

"The Senate's not going to take it up, well, Jesus, if the Senate's not going to take it up we might as well stop half of the business we do in the House," House Speaker Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, said during floor debate while critiquing the basis of some members' resistance to the legislative proposals.

After adjourning the House until Monday when both chambers return to session, Rozzi urged state senators to act on both standalone proposals. He said the statute could become law by next week's end should the Senate support it.

'A long time coming'

Pennsylvania voters get the final say on whether to amend the constitution. The soonest any proposed amendment could be put on a ballot would be November's general election.

The measures would each create a two-year window for survivors to file civil lawsuits against alleged perpetrators and enablers. The window would be open to those whose cases would otherwise be time-barred due to the statute of limitations.

Both bills retroactively would lift not just the statute of limitations but also sovereign and governmental immunity, opening the possibility of lawsuits against the state, school districts and other institutions.

The statute also seeks to waive immunity for future cases of sexual abuse.

"Today was a long time coming. For years I have supported my friend state Rep. Mark Rozzi's quest to open a window of justice for people who have suffered these horrific crimes against them," said Rep. Frank Burns, D-Cambria. "We have held hearings not just in Harrisburg, but at home in Cambria County. We have introduced legislation, constitutional amendments, and have done everything we can to bring this issue to the forefront — and to get victims the justice they deserve."

Bipartisan support, debate

House members voted 161-40 to adopt House Bill 1, the proposed constitutional amendment. Members voted 134-67 to adopt House Bill 2, the legal statute, with some members like Minority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, supporting the constitutional amendment but not the second bill.

Some Republicans in the House and the Senate, like Cutler, opposed the statutory pathway on the grounds that it might be held unconstitutional under a judicial challenge without the accompanying amendment.

"It's important that we get this done right and I wish that this had been done sooner," Cutler said, a reference to the Wolf administration's bungling of an advertising mandate that kept a ballot question to lift the statute of limitations from appearing before voters in 2021, causing the lengthy legislative process to reset.

Rep. Tim Bonner, R-Mercer/Butler, is a former district attorney. He said the Legislature has the power to make legislation retroactive and that the proposed statute meets established legal factors to do so.

Potential litigants won't simply file a claim and receive a payout. He said they'll have to corroborate testimony and have their medical records analyzed. Institutions involved, too, will undergo a deep analysis of their own actions in such cases.

"I know this personally because I have prosecuted many cases against molesters," Bonner said in urging support for the bill. "Any victim, however, would quickly trade the money that they receive in a lawsuit if their innocence could be restored, if their childhood memories could be revived with good memories and not nightmares. If they could trust their spiritual advisors, their teachers and their relatives. It would be an easy trade for a victim of child abuse."

Rep. John Lawrence, R-Chester, voted for both measures. However, he and others pointed to a technicality that saw the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rule in 2019 against the enactment of a constitutional amendment — Marsy's Law, which was approved by voters — that codified legal rights for crime victims.

Lawrence warned that procedural issues with House Bills 1 and 2, namely how Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair/Huntingdon, was included as a prime sponsor without his consent, could jeopardize both.

Rep. Eric Davanzo, R-Westmoreland, voted against both. He said his opposition is based on potential legal peril to taxpayers and public schools.

Rep. Matthew Bradford, D-Montgomery, thanked Davanzo for displaying intellectual honesty. He dismissed the opposition of others, equating it to "whataboutism," who'd prefer to vote on Senate Bill 1, the omnibus package.

"If our actions this week imperiled this legislation, bring it back, we'll vote again and vote it through again," said Rep. Napoleon Nelson, D-Montgomery.

Rozzi and Gregory have each revealed they've been victims of sexual abuse as children. On Friday, Rep. La'Tasha D. Mayes, D-Allegheny, said she, too, is a victim. She said she hasn't yet felt empowered to bring about a legal claim under the state's existing statute of limitations, one that extended the cutoff to age 55 for those abused when they were minors.

"Let us do this so that we don't have to have a conversation about how to bring remedy for victims and survivors because we will have done what is needed to be done to ensure that we eradicate childhood sexual abuse," Mayes said.