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Pa. lawmakers poised to reignite battle over controversial child sex-abuse laws

The fight is over criminal and civil statutes of limitations, and whether they should stand for all future cases of child sex abuse. And this is key: will they be retroactive?

Rep. Mark Rozzi (D., Berks) leads a child sex-abuse legislation rally at the Pennsylvania Capitol on Monday-. Behind him are three dozen fellow childhood sexual abuse victims and advocates.
Rep. Mark Rozzi (D., Berks) leads a child sex-abuse legislation rally at the Pennsylvania Capitol on Monday-. Behind him are three dozen fellow childhood sexual abuse victims and advocates.Read moreMaria Panaritis

HARRISBURG — Six months after seeing it collapse under pressure from both the pulpit and political lobbies, lawmakers are poised to revisit a controversial proposal to expand the statute of limitations for victims of child sex abuse.

On Tuesday, a House committee plans to consider a new bill passed by the Senate that would eliminate criminal and civil statutes of limitations for all future cases of child sex abuse — moves long sought by prosecutors and victims.

But that bill, sponsored by Senate Republican leader Joe Scarnati, the president pro tempore from Jefferson County, excludes what was at the core of the debate that raged for months last year in the Capitol: a provision that would let victims of abuse dating to roughly the 1980s sue their attackers and the institutions that oversaw them.

That clause was included in the original version of the bill that the House adopted by a 180-15 vote last year at the height of a clergy abuse scandal in the Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown. But it was removed from the legislation in the Senate, after an intense push by advocates for the church and insurance industry, who questioned its constitutionality and warned that it could unfairly punish struggling congregations for decades-old misconduct by long-gone clergy.

In the end, the impasse was intractable and the bill languished as the session ended.

On Monday, victim advocates held a rally outside the Capitol asking lawmakers to allow lawsuits over past abuse. They said the Scarnati bill to be taken up by the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday does not go far enough to deliver justice.

"We want to make it very clear that any bill that passes out without a retroactive provision for past victims of childhood sex abuse is a raw deal," Rep. Mark Rozzi (D., Berks), an abuse victim, said in front of about three dozen abuse victims and advocates.

The retroactive right to sue has been sought and recommended by prosecutors across Pennsylvania for more than a decade, after the national Catholic clergy abuse scandal of 2002 led to multiple grand jury probes into the Philadelphia Archdiocese and, last year, a grand jury report about decades of abuse within the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown in central Pennsylvania.

The Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office later that year subpoenaed the state's six other Catholic dioceses as part of an expanded clergy abuse probe that followed its release in March 2016 of two scathing reports, one of which resulted in criminal charges against leaders of an Altoona-area Franciscan order of priests.

House Majority Leader Dave Reed (R., Indiana) said Monday that the House "sent a pretty strong message" on where members stood last year by overwhelmingly supporting a bill allowing retroactive filing of lawsuits for victims up to the age of 50.

But Reed, who was central with Rozzi in getting House approval of that bill, said he disagreed with his Senate colleagues who removed that provision based on concerns that it might be unconstitutional. "Ultimately," Reed said, "the courts decide that."

Montgomery County child victims advocate Abbie Newman, whose agency, Mission Kids, has served more than 3,300 children since its founding in 2009, said retroactivity would provide healing to countless adults who, by the time they shared their stories, were unable to sue because the statute of limitations had passed.

"There are thousands of adults in Pennsylvania who have been victims of childhood sexual abuse," Newman said. "These victims need to be able to sue ... so they can heal."