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Pa. House to take up sex-abuse law to expand victims' rights

HARRISBURG - With only days remaining in the legislative session, the House intends to rewrite and send back to the Senate a contested child sex-abuse bill that would give victims the right to sue for decades-old abuses, leaders said Tuesday.

HARRISBURG - With only days remaining in the legislative session, the House intends to rewrite and send back to the Senate a contested child sex-abuse bill that would give victims the right to sue for decades-old abuses, leaders said Tuesday.

The plan by Republican House leaders repudiates the work of GOP Senate counterparts, who gutted a House bill with a retroactive-lawsuit provision opposed by the Catholic Church and insurance lobbyists.

The House intends to restore that language to the bill, potentially exposing private institutions to enormous financial liability by allowing lawsuits for abuse that happened years ago.

Rep. Mark Rozzi (D., Berks) announced the decision at an hour-long Capitol news conference attended by, among others, Republican attorney general candidate Sen. John Rafferty Jr. (R., Montgomery); Rep. Thomas Caltagirone (D., Berks); Rep. Frank Burns (D., Cambria); the state victims' advocate, and leaders of child-abuse victims' groups.

Rozzi said GOP House leaders had pledged to reject the Senate version and try a second time to change the law so that he and other former clergy-abuse victims will have the right to sue attackers and institutions for incidents that occurred in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s.

"It's our plan to run this legislation and send it back to the Senate," Stephen Miskin, spokesman for House Majority Leader Dave Reed (R., Indiana), said after Rozzi's announcement. Though only seven voting days remain, the bill likely will move out of the House this session, Miskin said.

"We're going to send it back to the Senate and say, do your jobs," Rozzi said. "Do we expect a fight over this? For sure. Could they sit on the bill? For sure."

House leaders were influenced in part by comments last week by new state Attorney General Bruce Beemer, who said in an interview that he believed a retroactive civil statute of limitations change for child sex crimes was constitutional.

His stance, a reversal of that of his predecessor, Kathleen G. Kane, who resigned after her conviction on perjury and obstruction of justice charges, was viewed as potentially reviving legislation that has been the subject of acrimony and lobbying for months. An investigation by Beemer's office into clergy abuse, meanwhile, reportedly has expanded to include six Pennsylvania dioceses.

Miskin said the House would support a bill that "probably" contains the provision rejected by the Senate in June - allowing the retroactive filing of lawsuits for people up to 50 years old. "That had a lot of support previously," Miskin said, "and we expect that it would again."

The House approved such a bill by 180-15 in April, weeks after the release of a state grand jury report detailing decades of abuse in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese in central Pennsylvania.

Amid a fury of lobbying, the Senate stripped retroactivity from the House bill in June. It cited concerns that the provision might not survive a state Supreme Court challenge.

On Tuesday, Senate Republicans urged the House to approve the amended bill.

"Removing the retroactive provision is not something we did lightly, and we have not heard anything that would change that conclusion," spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher said in a statement. "This all-or-nothing approach only helps child predators avoid prosecution by handcuffing law enforcement as the criminal statute of limitations remains in place."

The Senate version contains several changes hailed by victim advocates. It eradicates the criminal statute of limitations for all future cases and ends the civil statute of limitations so future child victims may sue attackers at any age. It does not provide similarly expansive powers to future victims seeking civil redress against institutions.

As it has previously, the Catholic Church on Tuesday questioned whether the law would hold up before the Supreme Court.

"We do share concerns along with the business community about how a retroactive measure will conflict with the Pennsylvania Constitution," Amy Hill, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, said in a statement.

"No matter the final resolution with House Bill 1947, the Catholic Church will continue to keep its sincere commitment to the emotional well-being of individuals who have been impacted by the crime of childhood sexual abuse, no matter how long ago the crime was committed," Hill said.

At the news conference, organized by Rozzi, speakers urged that the question of constitutionality be left to the Supreme Court, not the Senate.

Rafferty said he believed retroactively changing the civil statute for child sex abuse would not violate the remedies clause of the state constitution, as critics have claimed. The remedies clause is violated only if the legislature declares a formerly legal act to be illegal, he said. That issue led to the gutting of the House bill during the summer.

Bruce L. Castor Jr., at that time Kane's solicitor general, testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee that he believed the bill was unconstitutional, helping form the basis for the rejection of the measure.

"Pedophilia has never been legal in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania," said Rafferty, "never will be legal in Pennsylvania, and has been condemned in the Bible." 215-854-2431 @Panaritism