Efforts to reform Pa.’s child-sex crime law nears failure as clock ticks on legislative session

| 10/26/16 | Ivey DeJesus | pennlive.com |

Pennsylvania’s legislative session will, for all intents and purposes, expire this week and with it most likely the bill that would have reformed how the state prosecutes child sex crimes.

House Bill 1947, which passed by an overwhelming vote of 180-15 in the House in April, is just hours from being doomed to failure and to the dust bin where half a dozen or so other similar proposed bills have been over the years retired.

“I’m proud of what we were able to accomplish,” said Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, a survivor of clergy sex abuse who nearly single-handedly shepherd the bill through his chamber this spring.

Speaking from his Harrisburg office on Wednesday, Rozzi said he was deeply saddened and frustrated that yet again, an effort to extend past victims of sex abuse some legal recourse had failed. HB 1947, would have amended Title 42 (Judiciary and Judicial Procedure), and change the so-called statute of limitations – the laws that set the parameters of how long past victims have to prosecute predators.

“I have to be proud of what we accomplished,” Rozzi said. “I want to make sure all victims know that I’m not going away and will continue to fight for what I believe and know is right. We will continue to stand on high moral ground here.”

When the Senate in June amended and approved the bill by a 49-0 vote, bill laid claim to several “firsts,” including:

  • The first time a statute of limitations reform bill went up for vote in the House Judiciary Committee since 2006.
  • The first time a retroactive provision passed in the House.
  • The first time the Senate held a hearing on such a bill and voted on it.

Rozzi, however, who has become one of the state’s lead advocates for survivors, spent the last several months working the legislative channels trying to shore up compromise on language that would have injected back into the bill some retroactivity.

Rozzi on Tuesday said he tried tirelessly to shore up support for a compromise on language that, while may not have granted victims a wide breadth of recourse in civil court, would have at least given a short and limited one-year window for them to do so.

Among its provisions, HB 1947 would have:

  • eliminated the criminal statute of limitations on most child sex crimes.
  • allowed an individual to file a civil action against institutions and organizations based on child sexual abuse until that individual reaches the age of 50. (Currently it cuts off at 30).

The bill would not have revived time-barred civil actions, and that for advocates like Rozzi was a major sticking point. Abused by a priest at the age of 13, Rozzi has made it a priority to fight – so far all uphill – to reform the law to allow adults who were abused as children some legal recourse.

“At the end of the day I could not support the Senate version. It’s disheartening,” said Rozzi, explaining that provisions of the reworked bill resembled something written by the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the Insurance Federation, two of the most formidable opponents of the retroactive provisions of the bill. Both groups this year spread across the halls of the Capitol to lobby for its elimination.

The current legislative session ends Nov. 30. But for all practical purposes, it’s over after the last session day this week. There are one or two days planned for housekeeping and the chambers can call members back if they need to.

The church this year lobbied through its church communities and schools, urging parents and parishioners to lobby to representatives in Harrisburg on behalf of the church, arguing that HB1947 had “the potential to cripple our schools, catechetical programs, parishes, and charitable works that serve those in need.”

The conference did not oppose the elimination of the criminal statute of limitations but considered the retroactive measure “blatantly unfair.”

Rozzi said he recently worked with Rules Committee chairman Rep. David Reed to retweak the bill, with the idea of rushing back to the Senate before the legislative session expired.

“I agreed to go back and look at everything and see what I could find in my heart to satisfy all the victims,” Rozzi said.

But Rozzi said he was stonewalled at every attempt to meet with Sen. Joe Scarnati, the Senate’s President pro tempore.

“I’ve been trying to get into Scarnati’s office for months but was never allowed an appointment,” he said.

In a written statement to PennLive, Scarnati on Wednesday said:

“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 strengthens 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”.”

At the height of its momentum this spring, HB1947 had garnered so much support from victims and their advocates that practically not a week went by that a rally or walk wasn’t held somewhere in the state to raise awareness.

The Altoona-Johnstown clergy sex abuse case in March tipped the momentum in favor of advocates, who rode a groundswell of public outrage fueled by other stunning sex abuse cases in the state – including the clergy sex abuse case out of the Philadelphia Archdiocese, the Jerry Sandusky case and the Bill Cosby case.

Jennifer Kocher, the spokeswoman for the Senate Republicans, on Tuesday expressed disappointment and frustration that the bill was poised to fail.

“We had hope that in the last days of the session that they would look at the valuable improvements contained in the bill both for criminal and civil action in prospective victims moving forward,” she said. “We still are hopeful. There is hope that they will look at those things and still move forward and we encourage them to do so because of the good that it does for survivors.”

Kocher said the Senate had been confident that the bill would pass muster in court. Rozzi and a cadre of victims advocates had argued against concerns raised by opponents of the retroactive provisions that it would prove unconstitutional in court, urging lawmakers to allow the courts to make that decision.

Moreover, Attorney General Bruce Beemer about a month ago affirmed that the retroactive component was constitutional.

Kocher added that the positive aspects of the bill were being lost in the discussion over specific provisions.

“This all or nothing approach pushed by advocates really is going to help predators because it will handcuff law enforcement with the statute of limitations. They will now remain in place,” she said. “It’s unfortunate,” she said. “It means the rest of the bill is seen as a failure when it realistically provided real options both criminally and civilly for survivors moving forward.”

For victims of child sex abuse, the defeat of HB1947 strikes a particularly poignant blow coming on the heels of a bill that swiftly move through the Legislature aimed at protecting dogs from being left in cars on hot days.

“We can jump on a bill for doggies and cats in Pennsylvania and it can blow through the Legislature like it’s nothing,” said Brenda Dick, an Altoona woman who was molested as a girl by a family friend and now has become an activist. “It can go through the Senate and the House and poof, but kids? Kids forget. It’s like you are kidding me, right?'”

Dick was incensed at what she categorized as lawmakers being beholden to the Catholic Church.

“For me this is a huge thing. Pennsylvania let kids down. They gave the green light for molesters to keep going. I’m disgusted,” she said.

She stressed that the central issue with the bill was not a “Catholic issue” but one that potentially impacted thousands of survivors who had been sexually abused by teachers, youth group leaders, relatives and friends of family.

“People think it’s a Catholic problem,” she said. “But that’s the problem with the statute of limitations. It took all victims down. To me it’s murder. You destroy a child. It didn’t just affect the Catholic Church. It affected us all … the whole state of Pennsylvania got screwed.”

While the Pennsylvania Legislature has for more than 10 years failed to overhaul the statute of limitations, a wave of reform has swept the country. Some 32 states have in recent years amended statutes of limitations. Over the past 10 years, more than three dozen states have eliminated the criminal statute of limitations (for the top counts); more than a half-dozen have imposed “windows” or revived expired statutes to allow victims to come forth.

In every state – California, Delaware, Minnesota, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Georgia – where attempts to revive expired statutes of limitations have been challenged, courts have upheld the reform as constitutional.

Rozzi on Wednesday vowed he would not abandon his efforts to reform the law.

“We will come harder in January and we’ll continue to do the right thing in the House,” he said. “Eventually Senate will have to do the job here.”

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