A ‘retro’ look at the bat­tle of HB 1947

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - FRONT PAGE -

We’re talk­ing about leg­is­la­tion that would change the way Penn­syl­va­nia deals with child sex­ual abuse.

Retro or not retro. No, we’re not talk­ing about the lat­est fash­ion craze.

We’re talk­ing about se­ri­ous leg­is­la­tion that would change the way Penn­syl­va­nia deals with child sex­ual abuse.

Last spring the Penn­syl­va­nia House voted over­whelm­ingly 18015 in fa­vor of House Bill 1947. The mea­sure would elim­i­nate the statute of lim­i­ta­tions for child sex­ual abuse cases, and also ex­tend the win­dow of op­por­tu­nity for vic­tims to file civil ac­tions against their abusers.

Un­der cur­rent Penn­syl­va­nia law, vic­tims have 12 years af­ter they turn 18 to file a law­suit against their abuser. In other words, to age 30. House Bill 1947 would ex­tend that win­dow an­other 32 years, to age 50.

But a con­tro­ver­sial amend­ment to the leg­is­la­tion of­fered by Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks County, would make that pro­vi­sion retroac­tive, mean­ing vic­tims from as far back as the 1970s could still get their day in court to­day.

The retroac­tive lan­guage was bit­terly op­posed by the in­surance in­dus­try, the Na­tional Catholic Con­fer­ence and the Arch­dio­cese of Philadel­phia. Arch­bishop Charles J. Cha­put sent a let­ter that was read in ev­ery par­ish in the arch­dio­cese slam­ming the mea­sure as no less than an at­tack on the church, warn­ing of dire con­se­quences if it be­came law, and urg­ing parish­ioners to con­tact their state senators to op­pose it when it came up in that cham­ber. They made the ar­gu­ment that the law un­fairly tar­gets pri­vate in­sti­tu­tions – in other words the Catholic Church – as op­posed to pub­lic or­ga­ni­za­tions. Cha­put warned of pos­si­ble church clo­sures, lay­offs and cuts in so­cial ser­vices should the mea­sure be­come law.

Sev­eral state rep­re­sen­ta­tives, in­clud­ing at least two here in Delaware County, say they took heat from the church for their sup­port and votes in fa­vor of House Bill 1947. State Rep. Nick Mic­carelli, R-162, of Ri­d­ley Park, ac­tu­ally had his name ca­su­ally dropped in his par­ish bul­letin as a friendly re­minder to parish­ioners that he had sup­ported the mea­sure. Rep. Jamie San­tora, R-163, of Up­per Darby, com­plained that the church’s tac­tics came dan­ger­ously close to “elec­tion­eer­ing.”

The church’s full-court press worked. The mea­sure passed in the Se­nate – but only af­ter the retroac­tive lan­guage was stripped from the bill.

The statute of lim­i­ta­tions for crim­i­nal charges would be waived, and vic­tims would have more time to sue, but only in cases go­ing for­ward from the time the mea­sure be­comes law, if it ever does.

Now the Se­nate ver­sion is back in the House, and the ques­tion is whether or not the retroac­tive lan­guage will be put back into the mea­sure for a vote by the House.

Rozzi, him­self a vic­tim of abuse at the hands of his par­ish priest decades ago, held a press con­fer­ence sev­eral weeks ago pre­view­ing the fall ses­sion of the Leg­is­la­ture and vowed to put his amend­ment back in the bill, and block any at­tempt to strip it out again.

Last week House Repub­li­can lead­ers said the plan was to put the retroac­tive pro­vi­sion back in the bill and let the House vote on it.

But there are a cou­ple of things com­pli­cat­ing the is­sue.

One is the fact that ev­ery mem­ber of the House is run­ning for re­elec­tion in Novem­ber. It’s not hard to imag­ine the kind of pres­sure that could be heaped on these pub­lic ser­vants by those op­posed to the retroac­tive lan­guage in the bill.

The Repub­li­can lead­er­ship that con­trols the House could of­fer some cover for its rank and file by not al­low­ing the mea­sure to come to a vote.

Then there is the mat­ter of the whole thing bog­ging down in the Se­nate again, as it did ear­lier this sum­mer af­ter pass­ing the House.

Part of the de­bate no doubt would cen­ter on the same is­sue it fo­cused on then, that be­ing whether or not the retroac­tive lan­guage in the bill would pass con­sti­tu­tional muster.

At hear­ing held by the Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, then-So­lic­i­tor Gen­eral Bruce Cas­tor, at the time the No. 2 man in the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice, tes­ti­fied he be­lieved the retroac­tive lan­guage was plainly un­con­sti­tu­tional. It was not a unan­i­mous opin­ion. Oth­ers dis­agreed, and still oth­ers be­lieve the Leg­is­la­ture should have ap­proved the mea­sure and then let the courts de­ter­mine whether it’s con­sti­tu­tional.

Adding to the murk­i­ness, new At­tor­ney Gen­eral Bruce Beemer, who re­placed the con­victed Kath­leen Kane, said re­cently he did not think the retroac­tive lan­guage vi­o­lated a per­son’s con­sti­tu­tional rights.

Rozzi hailed Beemer’s com­ments, say­ing, “It’s a great day for vic­tims know­ing we have an at­tor­ney gen­eral who is not afraid to stand up and do what is right and fight for the vic­tims of this com­mon­wealth.”

But in­clud­ing the retroac­tive lan­guage in the bill could lead to de­feat in the Se­nate, or simply bog down the process. If it is once again passed by the House, de­spite the vo­cal op­po­si­tion, it could simply stall in the Se­nate. If it’s not voted on by the end of the ses­sion in De­cem­ber, it would have to be rein­tro­duced again next year, ba­si­cally putting the push for re­form back to zero.

That would sac­ri­fice the clear gains in the bill backed by both the House and Se­nate. That is mak­ing the changes in the statute of lim­i­ta­tions as well as the win­dow to file civil suits in fu­ture cases.

That’s where the mea­sure stands now. The ball is in Rep. Rozzi’s court. Retroac­tive or not retroac­tive? We’re about to find out.

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