HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — The state House has given its final approval to a proposal to change the Pennsylvania Constitution to give those who say they were victims of child sexual abuse a retroactive two-year “window” in which to file civil lawsuits, no matter how long ago the alleged abuse occurred.
State representatives voted 187 to 15 Wednesday for the constitutional amendment, passing it in the second consecutive legislative session, as required. With another Senate vote, it can go before voters in May.
Supporters called the constitutional amendment an overdue measure to hold accountable those who prey on children, and they argued that lawsuits can recover more damages than settlements.
State Rep. Mark Rozzi, who has spoken of being raped by a priest as a boy, told the House that bishops and other church leaders knew they had a problem with abusive priests and covered it up.
“The bishops aided and abetted,” Rozzi, D-Berks, said on the floor. “The victims had no chance. Think about your children. Think about putting them into a school, not knowing a predator’s there. My priest was at 12 different parishes.”
Rep. Paul Schemel, R-Franklin, warned of damage to churches and institutions, saying they would inevitably pay most of the successful claims while many of the actual perpetrators are dead or broke.
“These claims will harm the mission of all of these institutions that we care so deeply about,” Schemel said in floor debate.
He’s also argued that statutes of limitations provide important legal protections, and changing them retrospectively can leave litigants without the evidence they need to defend themselves.
Senate Judiciary Chair Lisa Baker, a Luzerne County Republican, said Tuesday she would schedule the House version for a committee vote for next week. If the state Senate gives its final approval, the proposal could be on the ballot for consideration by voters in the May 18 primary.
“By giving second round approval, we submit this crucial question to the court of voter decision allowing the public to render a powerful judgement on right and wrong,” Baker said in a statement.
Victims of child sexual abuse in Pennsylvania have long faced short time limits to file civil claims. A 2019 state law gave future victims of child sexual abuse more time to file lawsuits and ended time limits for police to file criminal charges.
A series of grand jury investigations has identified hundreds of Roman Catholic priests and more than 1,000 victims of such abuse over many decades and accused church bishops and other leaders of helping cover it up.
Rozzi said compensation funds set up by Pennsylvania dioceses have paid out $84 million to 564 victims.
“About $148,000 per victim. Pennies on the dollar that these victims deserve. Pennies. And now we want to talk about what it might do to the diocese,” Rozzi said.