Should Pennsylvania sex abuse survivors accept half loaf of justice?

Should Pennsylvania sex abuse survivors accept half loaf of justice?

Bill White, Contact Reporter, The Morning Call, September 26, 2016

 Is half a loaf better than none?

Not when it comes to this year's emotional and contentious effort to offer justice to many victims of child sex abuse in Pennsylvania by extending or eliminating statutes of limitations, according to the Legislature's most visible advocate for changing the law.

State Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, told me last week that he has consulted with survivors, advocacy groups and other House members over the question of whether the House should accept the watered down version of House Bill 1947 that passed the Senate in June.

 

He says the consensus is that they need to revert to the original House bill, or at least restore the language that gave victims of child sex abuse up to age 50 — including those blocked by the present statute — the retroactive right to sue their abusers.

One of those advocates, constitutional scholar Marci Hamilton, told me Rozzi is right to push hard for retroactivity, but she's OK with incremental improvements if necessary.

"My view is that you get what you can each year, and you keep pushing," she said. "If they pass an inadequate bill, they'll have to reconsider the issue next year. It's not going away."

Rozzi's inclination to reject a lesser bill has gotten a boost from two recent developments, as I'll explain shortly.

The history of efforts to extend statutes of limitations in Pennsylvania suggests that nothing ever would have happened without a horrifying grand jury report about abuse in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese and an Oscar-winning movie about the way similar crimes were covered up in Boston and exposed by journalists there.

Keeping the bills buried in committee for another session became politically unpalatable, and the House Judiciary Committee finally voted out a bill this spring that moved the ball forward.

Still, it didn't provide for retroactivity, and that's the part survivors and advocates have pushed hardest for, primarily in the form of a window that would allow all victims court access for two years, no matter how long ago the crimes occurred. The provision proposed on the House floor by Rozzi, which stopped short of a two-year window for everyone by targeting only victims 50 or younger, represented a compromise reached with House leaders. The bill passed 180-15, demonstrating its strong bipartisan support.

Unfortunately, the Senate Judiciary Committee, buoyed by a laughably lopsided committee hearing and testimony by short-lived Solicitor General Bruce Castor, concluded it was unconstitutional to provide retroactive court access for victims blocked under present law. It rewrote the bill accordingly.

The full Senate passed that version and sent it back to the House, where it sat throughout the summer as Rozzi and other advocates decided whether to accept half a loaf.

I figured they would pass the amended bill and come back next session with a new bill to restore retroactivity. After all, there aren't a lot of session days left this year, and even as amended, HB 1947 would be a considerable improvement on what Pennsylvania had before.

But the consensus, Rozzi said, was to go for the whole loaf. "Let's do it right," he said.

He told me he met a couple of times last week with House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana, whose support he praised. "One of the things we discussed at the meetings was the House being united no matter what we did," said Rozzi.

Reed's spokesman, Steve Miskin, told me the House leadership is considering Rozzi's appeal to discard the Senate changes.

"The question is trying to get something to the governor's desk or work on this and get it done next year," he said. "I think we're still trying to figure out what's the best strategy now."

I mentioned a couple of recent developments. First, the state's new attorney general, Bruce Beemer, told a Philadelphia Inquirer interviewer — and his office later confirmed to me — that he believes the retroactive portion is constitutional, weakening the Senate's excuse for rewriting the bill.

The other is the revelation that a statewide grand jury is gathering testimony about allegations of child sex abuse in other Pennsylvania dioceses, including Allentown, where Rozzi has said he and some of his friends were sexually abused by their priest when they were children. Rozzi said he was among those called to testify.

If new grand jury reports eventually emerge, it will put even more pressure on the Senate to give these older survivors an opportunity to finally identify and confront their abusers, many of whom were shielded for decades by deliberate attempts to cover their crimes up.

So there's good reason for Rozzi, Hamilton and other advocates to believe they eventually will get the kind of bill they've been waiting all these years — even if they risk seeing it die this year in the Senate and have to start from scratch next year.

"I'm willing to take the chance if the Senate wants to sit on it and pretend it ran out of time," Rozzi said. "We'll be back. We're not going anywhere."

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