Pennsylvania Lawmakers Try New Approach on Liability for Claims of Past Sex Abuse

HARRISBURG — Two Philadelphia lawmakers are making an end run around the legislative process to try to get their stalled child-abuse protection bills to a House floor vote.

State Reps. Michael McGeehan and Louise Williams Bishop, both Democrats, say the overlapping trials of two Philadelphia Archdiocese priests and former Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky are reason enough to consider their bills, which seek to expand the statutes of limitations for civil and criminal liability in claims of past assaults on children.”Sexual abuse of children is at the forefront in the Capitol right now, from the highest reaches of the Catholic Church in Philadelphia and one of the most prestigious secular institutions in Pennsylvania,” McGeehan said at a news conference in the Capitol.

Both bills have languished in the House Judiciary Committee for 15 months without a hearing or a vote. On Monday, McGeehan and Bishop introduced rarely used “discharge resolutions” that would essentially force their bills to a floor vote as early as Wednesday — unless the committee chairman, Rep. Ron Marsico (R., Dauphin), decides to shift the bills to another committee.

Marsico did not return a phone call seeking comment.

McGeehan’s bill would create a two-year window for filing suit over past sex abuse claims, regardless of the date of the alleged abuse. Bishop’s bill would add sex offenses to the list of crimes with no statute of limitations. The current statute of limitations for childhood-abuse cases bars accusers from bringing criminal complaints after age 50 and civil lawsuits after they turn 30.

“There is no better time to get a bill out of committee and to the floor,” said Bishop, who last year for the first time spoke publicly about having been sexually abused as a young girl by her stepfather. “We have the opportunity to act directly to protect thousands of children.”

McGeehan and Bishop, who were joined by Reps. Michael H. O’Brien (D., Phila.) and Steven Santasiero (D., Bucks), contended groups such as the insurance lobby and the state Catholic conference have a stranglehold on their bills.

“We are taking on some of the most powerful interests in the Capitol and the commonwealth,” McGeehan said.

Amy Hill, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, said abolishing the statute of limitations in criminal and civil cases would make it “impossible for organizations to defend themselves” and would “only result in a flood of lawsuits and big checks for lawyers.”

“The passage of time makes it nearly impossible for a church or any organization to defend itself against allegations from 30, 40, or 50 years ago,” Hill said. “Over time, evidence is lost or never found, witnesses’ memories fade, and in many instances perpetrators or witnesses may be deceased.”

Mark Rozzi, a Democrat running for a House seat in Reading, said at the news conference that time does not diminish victims’ memories.

Rozzi, 42, said a priest abused him when he was a teenager.

“I can assure you one thing: They never forget,” he said. “You wake up every morning remembering every detail of what happened.”

Contact Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or or @inkyamy on Twitter.