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Pa. reps push abuse bills

Gregory, Rozzi team up to change state constitution

State Reps. Jim Gregory and Mark Rozzi say they share a bond no one would envy, but it’s a connection that’s brought them together for a fight that, if successful, they think could help others with similar histories.

Both have said they were abused as children, in separate incidents, and they hope that this week the state Senate will vote on a pair of bills they’ve proposed dealing with sexual abuse. The bills would change the state’s constitution and alter major civil and criminal abuse laws.

The proposed legislation passed the state House with overwhelming support and is currently in the state Senate Judiciary Committee, which held a hearing on the two bills in early October.

Rozzi’s bill would eliminate the statute of limitations for most sexual abuse crimes. Gregory’s bill would amend the state constitution and allow a two-year window for otherwise outdated civil lawsuits against alleged sexual offenders.

There is a “connector” bill that states the two bills must pass or neither will go forward.

Both bills would extend the age of victims who can file charges up to age 55 from the current age of 30. Gregory said that is the age estimated by experts in the field of sexual abuse research that is the oldest at which victims recall their abuse.

It appears there’s reason to think the bills may go forward when the state Senate goes back into session this week.

Scarnati in support

State Senate President Pro Tem Joseph Scarnati, a Republican, has said he will support these bills and wants a vote on them, a position that is welcomed by Rozzi and Gregory considering that a year ago Scarnati was responsible for the demise of Rozzi’s initial proposal.

Scarnati disappointed proponents of a bill Rozzi had championed through the state House for many months. Legions of sexual abuse reform supporters had high hopes would the legislation would pass the Senate last year.

But at the 11th hour, Scarnati scuttled their hopes when he decided not to support the proposal, saying he believed the legislation, because of its two-year window proposal, was unconstitutional.

After the October hearing on the latest pair of bills, however, Scarnati’s office issued a statement saying he is now behind the bills proposed by Rozzi, a Democrat, and Gregory, a Republican.

He also supports two other pieces of legislation that implement recommendations of the state grand jury convened to hear testimony about allegations of abuse by Roman Catholic priests in Pennsylvania dioceses.

Mandated reporting

The legislation introduced by Rozzi and Gregory outline two of the grand jury’s proposals.

Two other bills supported by Scarnati that address the other aspects of the grand jury recommendations call for tougher penalties for mandated reporters who don’t report suspected child abuse and provide in the law that confidentiality agreements don’t apply when victims speak with law enforcement.

“A Senate Judiciary Committee hearing was recently held on the issue,” Scarnati said in his statement. “I am supportive of the four House bills … currently in the Senate, to address all four of the grand jury recommendations. We plan to move these bills through the Senate this fall. I have been influenced by my oath of office to uphold the constitution, and I remain hopeful that all parties involved can come together to move these important reforms forward in the near future.”

Locals split

State Sen. Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, declined to comment on how he would vote on the legislation. His spokesman said he was deferring comment to Scarnati.

State Sen. Wayne Langerholc Jr., R-Cambria and a member of the Judiciary Committee, said he supports all four recommendations of the grand jury.

As for the two-year window proposal, the former Cambria County district attorney said he’s researched the law and believes it is sound constitutionally.

“I do feel it would survive constitutional scrutiny,” he said. “Above all, we need to ensure that victims have justice.”

State Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair, voted against Rozzi’s bill last year.

She said she would vote against the two bills again if they came to the floor. She voted against the measure last year because she thought it was unconstitutional. She will vote against it this year because she also disagrees with changing the statute of limitations and altering the state constitution, she said.

“My heart truly goes out to all victims of sexual abuse who have gone through such horrible atrocities,” Ward said. “These are unspeakable crimes and those who have been found guilty need to answer for and be punished for those crimes. Anything we do as lawmakers should be done with the goal of protecting the vulnerable from those who would prey upon them.

“With that being said, I don’t feel it is in the best interest of public policy to allow retroactivity or change our state constitution. A statute of limitation has been part of our legal system for centuries. It protects against facts clouding or evidence disappearing over the passage of time. Consistent with our constitution, our laws are always prospective in nature.”

Democrat Gov. Tom Wolf has said he supports all four recommendations of the grand jury.

Common ground

For Rozzi and Gregory, it’s a personal fight because of what happened to them.

Rozzi has said he was abused by a Roman Catholic priest at age 13. Gregory has said he was molested by a group of peers at age 10.

Gregory said the trauma he experienced at a young age affected his life for years afterward because he never addressed his abuse, burying his pain in a haze of addictions.

He said he experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, which spiraled into a pit of self-destructive behaviors until he said he was saved by finding God.

“I lived 36 years like that and got to the point that I didn’t want to live anymore,” he said. “But thankfully, God intervened.”

Gregory came to grips with what happened to him as a young boy — “when he was introduced to things no 10-year-old should be exposed to” — and emerged not only better emotionally, physically and spiritually, he said, but as a champion for the rights of other people who have been sexually abused.

When he ran for political office, he campaigned for change to the laws governing abuse victims, spurred not only by his case but by those who were victimized by the Catholic church as outlined in the grand jury reports, he said.

“I made a campaign promise that I wanted to stop the cycle, and I wanted victims to know that you can talk about this,” he said.

When he got to Harrisburg, he knew about Rozzi’s history and thought that together, they could succeed where one had failed before. Rozzi agreed, having heard about Gregory’s campaign and his background.

“I thought it was the perfect fit,” said Rozzi, who represents part of Berks County.

Rozzi said he was raped by a Catholic priest named in one of the grand jury reports when he was 13. The church moved the priest to churches in other states several times, where he sexually abused other young boys, Rozzi said.

The priest has since died.

Rozzi said he was disappointed his legislation didn’t pass last year and admitted it will take longer to go the route of amending the state constitution. The measure must pass two consecutive sessions of the state Legislature then receive a favorable vote in a state referendum.

But he’s resigned to this path that he said may end up being a sounder direction. Some people who supported his crusade last year claimed he sold out because they said this method will take too long.

But he said he was left with little choice because the GOP, particularly Scarnati, left him little room to maneuver.

“Maybe this won’t be a bad idea because it will be very hard to challenge,” he said. “They can challenge it, but it would be extremely difficult to overturn.”

MONDAY: How proposed legislation could affect the local diocese.

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