Pa. Legislature won’t take up House Bill 1947
Legislature won’t take up bill to give them their day in court
The fight to expand the statute of limitations for sexual abuse victims in Harrisburg is over for this session.
The fight to expand the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse victims in Harrisburg is over for this session. HB 1947 failed to be put out for a final vote and its main supporter called it a victim of an abuse of power and vowed to resuscitate the issue in the next session in the new year.
HB 1947 surfaced in the spring as the state House passed the measure 180 to 15 in April, on the heels of a state Attorney General grand jury report into hundreds of students abused in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown by at least 50 Catholic priests dating back 40 years. But when the bill moved to the Senate, it faced a concerted campaign from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the insurance industry to block controversial language that would allow victims from decades ago to come forward now and file civil suits against their alleged abusers.
The archdiocese urged parishioners to contact their legislators to oppose the bill. Some lo-
cal House members who had supported the measure said they took heat from the archdiocese, with one actually having his name casually mentioned in the Sunday bulletin at his parish.
In June, the state Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on House Bill 1947, which proponents said was biased due to the connection of the committee chairman, state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-12, of Willow Grove, and his firm representing Catholic entities in abuse cases in Delaware. The firm fought similar legislation there, as well as then-Solicitor General Bruce Castor’s testimony in light of the guarantee he made to Bill Cosby about avoiding prosecution on rape charges years ago.
The Senate removed a provision that would have allowed adult survivors to seek civil recourse from those that harmed them and added other measures such as eliminating the criminal statute of limitations for conspiracy. It also allowed civil suits to be filed decades from now against individuals who abused a child or a private or public institution involved in conspiring with these attackers. In the Senate version, the standard of proof was also lowered to negligence in these cases, instead of gross negligence.
After passing in the Senate - without the controversial retroactive language - it was returned to the House. It failed to make it to the floor for a vote this week.
State Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-126, of Berks County, who crafted the House amendment allowing victims up to 50 years old to pursue cases from abuse that occurred decades ago and himself a victim of abuse by a priest, said he was willing to compromise but pointed to senate leadership as problematic, and he believes it’s connected to the campaign donations they receive from opponents of the bill.
“People should know the difference between right and wrong,” Rozzi said. “They’re abusing their power.”
He said state Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-25, of Brockway, refused to meet with him — or any survivor — and said Scarnati’s version of the bill, which was sent to the House, appeared to be written by the Catholic Conference and the Insurance Federation, whom Rozzi said are major campaign contributors.
State records showed Scarnati received a $12,000 donation from the Pennsylvania Insurance PAC in May and votesmart.org listed the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania as one of Scarnati’s top contributors, having contributed $47,000 to his campaign.
Rozzi also pointed to the 39 lobbyists advocating against this legislation.
“There’s no other institutions running around here lobbying against the bill — it’s the Catholic Conference and the Insurance Federation,” Rozzi said.
The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference has maintained its position that the church acknowledges its past and is committed to offering assistance to victims.
“We will provide continuous resources for survivors and their families so they can have access counseling, addiction treatment, medications and other necessary support services,” a statement on their website read. “Survivors do not need retroactive lawsuits to get support from the Catholic Church.”
It also pointed to safe environment practices such as training for employees, clergy and volunteers in identifying and responding to abuse, as well as reporting matters to local district attorneys.
Kate Eckhart, Scarnati’s communications director, said comment on this matter would be limited to a statement, then added, “There needs to be a level of respect among colleagues and unfortunately that has not been shown by Rep. Rozzi.”
Scarnati’s statement reads: “House Bill 1947 in its current form makes valuable improvements for both the criminal and civil actions for victims of child abuse. On this issue the House and Senate have more in common than disagreement. The language in which there is agreement is contained in HB 1947 and should be sent to the governor. HB 1947, which I strongly support, is constitutionally sound and further strengths current law. Often as a legislator I ask myself one simple question: Does the bill make current law better for the citizens of Pennsylvania? The clear answer when analyzing HB 1947 in its current form is ‘yes.’”
Rozzi disagreed, saying the Senate version was “deeply flawed,” containing a “dangerous preamble that restricted civil tort actions way beyond child sex abuse.”
He said he met with House Majority Dave Reed, R-62, of Indiana, Pa., to discuss what to do with the bill.
The representative said Senate leadership indicated they would not pass anything other than what they sent to the House.
He said he was willing to drop the retroactive component up to 50 years old in favor of a one-year window, allowing victims of any age to seek criminal and civil recourse.
Rozzi said he continued to try to talk to other House members about the legislation but was shut out.
“It became quite apparent to me they were content to stand there and protect pedophiles and the institutions that protect them,” Rozzi said. “House Bill 1947 was abandoned, like victims have been for years.”
He did want to highlight the movement made on this issue.
“I am proud of what we were able to accomplish this session,” he said, adding that it was the first time since 2006 to get such legislation out of the House Judiciary Committee, it was the first time there was a favorable vote in the House on retroactivity and it was the first time a senate hearing was held on this matter.
He thanked Reed for recognizing flaws in the senate version, and spoke of what can be expected in the future.
“I want to thank Majority Leader Dave Reed for agreeing to make statute of limitation reform for victims of childhood sexual abuse priority in the new year,” Rozzi said, adding that he wants to insert a window to allow victims of any age an opportunity to seek recourse. “We will be working together to come up with an agreedupon bill that cannot be perverted or that benefits one group of victims over another.”
The representative reaffirmed his commitment to childhood sexual abuse victims.
“I’m not quitting,” Rozzi said. “I’m fighting for you still. Eventually we will win the war ... With six more Roman Catholic dioceses under investigation, you can be sure this problem is not going away and neither are we.”