HARRISBURG — The Republican speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives said Wednesday his chamber is about to again take up proposed changes to the state’s limits on child sexual abuse lawsuits, predicting enough support to pass a two-year window to allow victims with older claims to sue.
Speaker Mike Turzai called the two-year window “a compromise” compared with a competing proposal to retroactively eliminate all limits on lawsuits for victims of all ages.
Last month’s sweeping grand jury report on child sexual abuse in six of the state’s eight Roman Catholic dioceses also recommended a two-year window. The report found that 300 “predator priests” had abused more than 1,000 children over 70 years, and alleged church officials acted to cover up the attacks.
“Everybody empathizes with the victims of child sexual abuse. These victims have to live with these consequences the rest of their lives,” Turzai, of Allegheny County, told The Associated Press. “It’s important legislation, and I think the key is that the Senate and House have to find some agreement to get the bill to the governor’s desk.”
Pennsylvania law currently requires victims to sue before they turn 30, and limits criminal prosecutions to before the victims turn 50. State prosecutors said nearly all the abuse they identified during the lengthy grand jury occurred too long ago to produce new charges.
There is wide support in the General Assembly to eliminate the statute of limitations entirely for criminal matters going forward, but disputes over retroactively changing the restrictions on civil claims have previously stalled efforts to revise the law.
“I know in the speaker’s heart, he knows what the right thing to do here is, and that is to pass the window,” said Rep. Mark Rozzi of Berks County, a leader among House Democrats on clergy abuse issues.
The Senate’s top-ranking Republican, President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, said late last month that retroactive changes would violate the state constitution. Scarnati, of Jefferson County, said he supports a church-endowed victims’ compensation fund that would be run by a neutral third party.
The chambers begin short fall sessions Sept. 24. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has said he supports a two-year window and other reforms suggested in the grand jury report .
The Senate in February 2017 voted 48-0 for a bill that would give victims until age 50 to sue and eliminate the statute of limitations for related criminal offenses, but it contains no retroactivity.
Turzai said that bill, which the House has not acted on, will likely be amended by his chamber in the near future. Asked if he has spoken in recent weeks about retroactivity with Senate leaders, Turzai replied: “I’m going to pass on that.”
He was not dismissive of constitutionality concerns.
“It is certainly a legitimate issue to raise,” he said, noting he voted for “an open-ended look back” during a previous session. “I voted in favor of it. Do I think somebody will challenge it in court? I honestly don’t know.”
Bishops and insurers have successfully fought proposed retroactivity in Pennsylvania in recent years, but a handful of other states have allowed it, letting older victims sue the church.