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Sen. Bill could waive statute of limitations

House amendment would open a 2-year window for now-adult victims of childhood abuse to file claims

Courtesy photo / Shaun Dougherty, a Johnstown victim of child sex abuse by a priest, speaks at a rally in Harrisburg on Monday to urge passage of legislation with a retroactive component to give past victims the opportunity to reveal and sue abusers who have been protected by the statute of limitations.

A teetering proposal could allow an untold number of child sexual abuse victims to sue their abusers — or it could fail again.

Senate Bill 261 passed the House last week in the wake of the latest grand jury report outlining abuse of more than 1,000 children by hundreds of priests in six dioceses since the 1950s.

The Senate sent the original bill to the House 20 months ago to eliminate civil and criminal statutes of limitations for crimes moving forward. Current law allows a child sex abuse victim until they are 30 years old to file civil lawsuits or 50 years old to file criminal charges.

But the House-passed version includes an amendment added by Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, that would open a two-year window for now-adult victims of childhood sexual abuse to bring civil claims in court against their abusers.

Waiving the statute of limitations for past victims is supported by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who released the latest report of abuse in Catholic dioceses, said victim advocate Shaun Dougherty of Johnstown.

“By allowing past victims to sue, you have a public record of who the abusers are because right now they are still living among children,” said Dougherty, who was sexually abused by a priest.

Dougherty said it is the most crucial aspect of the bill.

The window would not only help victims of the church but also victims of other predators.

He pointed to a Johnstown pediatrician, Dr. Johnnie Barto, who was charged last year with abusing a 12-year-old girl. Barto was accused of similar acts by a victim in 1998, but there was not enough evidence for charges. Dougherty said he knows that past victim and said she would have sued Barto if Rozzi’s amendment had been passed when it was first introduced a couple of years ago. He believes Barto would have lost his license and that would have prevented the abuse of the 12 year-old.

“The two-year window is the only part of the bill that will bring past wrongs to light and protect future victims,” he said.

The progress of Rozzi’s amendment resembles the path it took in 2016 when it failed with nay votes from legislators representing constituents in the Altoona-Johns­town Diocese, where a grand jury report outlined abuse of hundreds of children at the hands of priests and religious leaders over 40 years.

‘Nay’ say local legislators

In 2016, the House overwhelmingly passed a bill with a retroactive measure that would have allowed victims of past sexual abuse to sue the perpetrators. Rep. Judy Ward, R-Hollidaysburg, and Rep. John McGinnis, R-Altoona, were in the minority who voted against it.

The bill progressed to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which included Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., R-Blair. The committee kept measures to eliminate statutes of limitations moving forward but voted to strip the bill of the retroactive clause.

“We need to make people realize the I-99 corridor … I think there is a strong argument to rename I-99 Pedophile Protectors of Pennsyl­vania highway,” Dougherty said.

Last week, the bill passed the House 173-21 with McGinnis and Ward voting against it because of the retroactive amendment.

“I voted in the negative because I believe the amendment would violate the ‘Remedies Clause’ of the Pennsylvania Constitution. As a state legislator, I am bound to uphold the constitution and could not in good conscience vote in favor of this measure,” Ward stated in a press release.

McGinnis’ comments echoed Ward’s.

“I voted nay because any retroactive elimination or suspension of an existing statute of limitations is a violation of the Penn­sylvania Constitution’s remedies clause and goes against 800 years of English legal tradition back to Magna Carta,” he stated in an email. “I’m sure my nay vote will disappoint some, if not many. … While it may not be accommodating enough for some, it’s all I could do with respect to Senate Bill 261.”

Eichelberger’s perspective is the same as it was in 2016.

“As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I sat through the hearing we had on the constitutionality of retroactively addressing the statute of limitations. The conclusive answer from the foremost constitutional experts was clear — it is a long-held decision by the PA court to not allow a change of this nature,” he stated in an email. “Opening up the window to go back in time is also the least effective means of getting money for the victims. Churches and other entities will file for bankruptcy, the insurance industry will stop offering the coverage moving forward and only a few early filers will see a cash settlement or award.”

Clock running out

Only six voting days remaining between Monday and Oct. 17 for the Senate to act.

“I absolutely have concerns,” Dougherty said. “I’ve been here before. When they want to pass something, they want to get it out. I predict whatever comes out … will include a poison pill hard for the House to swallow. I’ve been here before.”

The bill has been sent to the Senate’s Rules and Executive Nominations Committee, chaired by Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre. From there it could go to a floor vote or be referred to another committee.

Although Corman has concerns that the retroactive window is unconstitutional, he’s received new information from the attorney general.

Corman’s spokeswoman Jenn Kocher said there is no firm date, but Corman is committed to move the measure before the end of the session. She stressed that the House took 20 months to send the bill back to the Senate, leaving only days to review its amendments.

“I know it is an extremely emotional thing. The things being said are coming from pain and emotion. We understand that. We want to do everything within the bounds of constitution to help victims. That’s why we are taking a second look at everything,” she said, noting the retroactive window specifically.

Members have taken an oath to uphold the constitution; they also want to help victims, she said.

“These acts are heinous acts, and we are appalled by them. We want to give victims the tools or satisfaction that their perpetrators have been held accountable,” she said.

The two-year window isn’t the only House amendment to be reviewed by the Senate.

“The House bill creates two classes of victims. That’s one of the big concerns we have. Victims of private-practice doctors, for example, would have unlimited ability to sue, but victims of public schools would have a higher standard of proof to recover compensation and that compensation is capped,” she said. “We believe abuse is abuse. Creating a tier of victims and treating some different than others is inappropriate.”

Before the House amendments were added, Kocher noted the Senate’s original bill was written to eliminate criminal statutes of limitations and many of the civil statutes moving forward. It also would eliminate statutes protecting conspirators.

Kocher said the House amendments could have been in a separate bill instead of striving for everything at once.

“Don’t let perfect negate the good. We are trying to get to the perfect, and in the meantime statute of limitations has run out on people in the last 20 months,” she said.

Langerholc supportive

Sen. Wayne Langerholc Jr., R-Cambria, said he supports the two-year retroactive window.

“I’ve had a couple days to digest it (SB 261). I have some concerns with the House version … but I would support the window. My district is essentially where this conversation started in 2016. It was the beginning stages of pulling the blanket off the statewide cover-up, the fraud. To read in the most recent statewide report from August where individuals were clearly moving priests around and covering it up, and fraudulently seeking help from district attorneys after knowing the statute of limitations had run out,” he said. “It is repulsive.”

Supporters of the two-year window said amending SB 261 was the fastest vehicle to getting Rozzi’s measure passed as opposed to introducing a separate, stand-alone bill.

If it becomes final by the end of this legislative session, supporters expect the church to appeal the law to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

In all states were a retroactive window was proposed, the state supreme courts upheld it. A spokesperson for Rozzi said he would expect the same in Pennsyl­vania.

CHILD USA, a Philadelphia nonprofit think tank dedicated to protecting children, tracks four types of laws that put children at risk including statutes of limitations for child sex abuse.

Nine states have enacted legislation that waived statutes of limitations up to a certain age or for a set period of time. Those states are California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Utah and this year Michigan, where a 90-day window was allowed for victims of convicted serial child molester Larry Nassar, who was the USA Gymnastics national team doctor and an osteopathic physician at Michigan State University.

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.

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