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Pa. hearing highlights stalled child-sex-abuse bills

HARRISBURG - In a way, the House Committee on Children and Youth is not unlike the child-abuse victims testifying Monday before the panel: powerless. It has no standing to push changes in the law it was advocating.

HARRISBURG - In a way, the House Committee on Children and Youth is not unlike the child-abuse victims testifying Monday before the panel: powerless. It has no standing to push changes in the law it was advocating.

Still, its outgoing chairman, Dennis O'Brien, said he wanted a hearing anyway. It would be his "swan song" after 35 years in Harrisburg, a potent way to send a message to fellow lawmakers that the issue of childhood sexual abuse must be addressed.

"We want to search for truth so that perpetrators can't continue to re-offend," said a choked-up O'Brien (R., Phila.), who is stepping down soon to take a seat on the Philadelphia City Council. "The conversation cannot end here."

And so they came to the hearing, with pictures of their sons, some now dead, inch-thick grand jury reports, and streams of tearful memories.

Victims, their families, and advocates testified before a House committee, urging passage of legislation to lift the statute of limitations on civil suits for survivors of child sexual abuse in the wake of revelations about the Pennsylvania State University scandal. The proposed legislation is now before the Judiciary Committee, which handles all crime-related bills.

"There is no statute of limitations on homicide because that is the worst crime. What happens to [sexual-abuse victims] is soul murder," said Charles Gallagher, the former lead prosecutor in the Philadelphia District Attorney's investigation of priest abuse. "Their childhood is taken from them, their faith in adults is taken from them. It's no different than murder."

The committee also heard testimony in support of a bill to provide a onetime, two-year "window" in which victims could bring civil action against the alleged abuser and the institution if the facility had responsibility or control over the minor at the time.

O'Brien added three bills to the package stemming from the Penn State scandal: One would require eyewitnesses of child abuse to report the incident to the appropriate legal authorities, not merely report it to his or her supervisor.

Another would increase penalties for failure to report, from a third-degree misdemeanor to a second-degree misdemeanor for a first offense. A third would extend the statute of limitations for the offense of failure to report, from two years to three.

All are in the hands of the Judiciary Committee, which has so far this year failed to hold a hearing or a vote on the bills.

O'Brien said he held his hearing to challenge the legislature to take up the bills.

"Those who have been abused want to make sure there are no more future victims," O'Brien said.

The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference has opposed the measures because of the difficulty institutions would have in defending themselves from crimes that occurred as long ago as a half century.

"Opening a 'window' on the statute of limitations for damages claims against non-perpetrators is flawed," Amy Hill, spokeswoman for the Catholic Conference, said in a statement. "Over time, memories fade, evidence is lost or never found, and in many instances, perpetrators or witnesses may be deceased. The passage of time makes it nearly impossible for a church or any other organization to defend itself against allegations from 30, 40, and 50 years ago."

Arthur Baselice Jr. testified that his 28-year-old son, Arthur III, took his life in 2006 after years of abuse at the hands of a former principal and a maintenance man at Archbishop Ryan High School in Philadelphia.

"I believe our son died of loneliness, shame, despair, and because the courts said he had no right to be heard," said Baselice, a former Philadelphia Police detective.

Supporters say they cannot understand why the bills addressing what they consider an "epidemic" of child sex abuse have failed to get a vote in the House Judiciary Committee for two sessions - under both Republican and Democratic leadership.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Ron Marsico (R., Dauphin), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the committee each session has reviewed hundreds of bills - among them, other measures to address child abuse.

The committee voted out bills Monday to close loopholes in Megan's Law registration aimed at sex offenders who change addresses.

"There are 360 bills in committee, and they have voted out about 60," said Autumn Southard, Marsico's chief of staff. "Every individual has different priorities. It doesn't mean we are not going to do it. The session isn't over."

Rep. Mike McGeehan (D., Phila.), who is sponsoring the "window" bill, said enormous public interest in the Penn State scandal and other recent high-profile instances of child sex abuse should push the statute-of-limitations bills to the top of the committee's agenda, just as it has prompted the legislature to agree to form a commission to look at changes in the law.

"I understand the committee schedule," McGeehan said. "But there is not a more important issue we are dealing with, and the fact that there is going to be a commission should back that up."