Senate votes to overhaul child sex crime laws, but effort falls short for some victims

“Sen. Robert Teplitz, D,Dauphin, who worked closely with House Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, to push reform legislation, urged members of the chamber to vote in favor of the bill even as he apologized to past victims of child sex abuse. He called it ‘an important bill.'”

| 6/30/16| Ivey DeJesus | pennlive.com |

Pennsylvania on Thursday came one step closer to joining the ranks of states that have overhauled child sex crime laws in the wake of stunning child sex abuse scandals.

Three months after a grand jury investigation found systemic sexual abuse of hundreds of children by priests in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, the Senate by a 49-0 vote gave final passage to a bill that broadly amends and toughens the law on future sex crimes against children.

House Bill 1947, widely seen as a compromise bill out of that chamber, garnered wide support from the Senate just weeks after its constitutionality was questioned.

If signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf, House Bill 1947 would eliminate criminal statute of limitations for most child sex crimes. The bill also broadens the time frame that victims have to file civil suits against predators.

The bill, however, dashed the hopes of hundreds if not thousands of victims of past child sex abuse who had looked to legislative changes in the law for justice. A retroactive measure in the bill was eliminated this week under an amendment from Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R‑Jefferson County.

Victims had long lobbied for a retroactive measure that would have allowed adults who were sexually abused as children and whose legal rights had expired to seek recourse.

Sen. Robert Teplitz, D,Dauphin, who worked closely with House Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, to push reform legislation, urged members of the chamber to vote in favor of the bill even as he apologized to past victims of child sex abuse. He called it “an important bill.”

“I’m sorry that we are not able to address the needs of survivors of past abuse,” he said. He added that Senate members had held “reasonable debate” over the constitutionality of the bill in its original language with the retroactive measure.

The bill is poised to usher in sweeping changes to the state’s statute of limitations – the time limits given to victims of sexual abuse to take legal action against predators.

House Bill 1947 would eliminate all criminal statute of limitations against most child sex crime laws. That means victims would have no time restrictions on when they could file criminal charges against perpetrators.

The bill also broadens the time frame for civil action, giving victims until their 50th birthday – as opposed to the current cut off at 30 – to file civil suits.

Specifically, the bill redefines the time limitations for civil suits in future crimes: Victims of child sex abuse would have indefinitely to file suit against individual perpetrators but would have only until the age of 50 to seek civil action against institutions.

House Bill 1947 also waives sovereign immunity in cases of child abuse, lowering the standard from gross negligence to negligence; eliminates criminal conspiracy or solicitation statutes for those that facilitate offenses.

“There’s a lot of other things in this bill that are very strong,” Teplitz said. “None of that should be overshadowed by the fact that we can’t provide justice for everyone but we can provide justice for a significant number of people.”

Victims of child sex abuse had for years fought to amend Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations, an effort that reached a tipping point this spring in the wake of the grand jury report that found systemic child sex abuse by priests from the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

Hundreds of adults who were sexually abused as children by priests in Philadelphia and the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese will be watching the House this week as it takes up a bill that would reform the statute of limitations.

The statute of limitations have all expired for all the priests named in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese report – as well as earlier grand jury reports out of the Philadelphia Archdiocese.

Speaking on the floor, Sen. John Wozniak, R-Bedford, lauded the General Assembly for having come a long way in trying to bring the issue of laws pertaining to child sex abuse to the forefront.

“This isn’t 1910. This isn’t the family’s little secret,” he said. “This is the 21st century and there should be no tolerance in our society for the abuse of children.”

Wozniak invoked Rozzi and the “life altering experience” he had at the hands of someone he trusted. Rozzi was abused at the age of 13 by his priest.

Wozniak said the “heinous” crimes uncovered by the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese grand jury report had pushed the reform effort beyond the typical “inertia” that can plague legislation.

Hundreds of children were sexually abused over a period of 40 years by priests or church leaders in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, a grand jury investigation has concluded.

“This bill not aimed at any religious order or any education group or teacher,” he said. “It is for every human being in a responsible position that abuses somebody who does not have the power to fight back. It is time Pennsylvania takes a stand.”

The retroactive component of the bill was defeated largely amid concerns that it was unconstitutional to revive expired statutes of limitations. Opposition to the retroactive measure was mounted largely by the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, the insurance industry and several business lobby groups – all of which argued that the measure would be detrimental to their interests and singled them out unfairly.

Teplitz hinted at future measures that would address the needs of time-barred victims.

“There may be other opportunities in a future day to deal with that issue….but I don’t think that shouldn’t overshadow the significance of the fact that we have an opportunity to give justice to future victims of abuse and perhaps prevent victims of abuse.”

Sen. John Rafferty, R, Montgomery, said that while he still felt the question of the constitutionality issue on the retroactive measure should have been left up to the Supreme Court, the bill contained some “real positive” measures that were introduced by Scarnati.

Specifically, he said is the measure that lowers for public institutions the legal standard for child sex abuse from gross negligence to negligence. He said the amendments to the bill addressed some of his main concerns out of the grand jury investigations into clergy sex abuse in the Philadelphia Archdiocese and the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese – that of concealment and cover-up.

“Scanati’s amendment addresses this,” Rafferty said. “Now they can be held accountable in criminal court and face their accusers and their jury. It’s a big step in the right direction.”

A motion by Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York, to revert the bill to prior language failed.

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