State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Katie Meyer covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

In wake of clergy abuse report, a likely legislative fight brews

Written by Katie Meyer, Capitol Bureau Chief | Aug 21, 2018 5:23 AM

Berks County Representative Mark Rozzi is pushing a bill that would extend Pennsylvania's statute of limitations and open a window for retroactive lawsuits. It has stalled several times. (WITF)


(Harrisburg) -- Amid the fallout from a massive grand jury investigation  into sex abuse by Pennsylvania clergy, victim advocates and others are waiting to see how state lawmakers will respond.

Early responses indicate one of the most significant reforms will still face roadblocks.

Mark Rozzi, a Berks County Democrat who says a priest raped him when he was a teenager, has spent several years pushing bills to extend or eliminate Pennsylvania's statute of limitations on sexual abuse.

He also wants to open a two-year window for people to bring suits in cases that have already exceeded the statute.

But that latter provision has proven tricky.

One of its key opponents is Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati.

After the report's release, he issued a statement calling the findings "undoubtedly disturbing and horrifying." He went on to say he supports Senate Bill 261, a "constitutionally sound bill that takes a crucial step forward to help protect victims of child sexual abuse."

That version of Rozzi's bill, notably, does not include the retroactivity provision; Scarnati and staffers have long maintained that allowing suits for old offenses is unconstitutional.

But Kermit Roosevelt, a University of Pennsylvania law professor who has worked with Rozzi on the bill's legality, said the issue is far from settled.

The state Supreme Court may interpret a retroactivity clause as unconstitutional, he said. But they just as easily may not.

"I think the better reading of the case law is that it's not unconstitutional," he said. "But legislatures enact unconstitutional laws all the time. If the constitutionality of something is not clear but the legislature wants to do it, they do it...If you don't know, you can go ahead and do it and let the courts tell you."

He added, "My sense is that people who are bringing up the constitutionality issue are looking for political cover, because they don't want to say, 'for policy reasons, I don't support this.'"

A top lawyer for Scarnati didn't return a request for comment.

State lawmakers are expected to take up the issue when they return to session next month.

The grand jury report shows priests in six of Pennsylvania's Catholic dioceses have abused at least 1000 children since the 1940s.  

The line "some of the most significant reforms" was changed to "one of the most significant reforms" to better reflect the fact that the bill's retroactive provision is currently the major source of controversy.

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