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Allegheny

State rep. calls for measure to allow adults to sue over childhood abuse

| Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018, 5:39 p.m.

A state representative who has said a Catholic priest sexually abused him as a child called on legislators Tuesday in Pittsburgh to support a proposal that would give adults a new chance to sue over childhood sexual abuse.

State Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks County, said he plans to introduce the proposal in the state House next week, shortly after legislators return from a recess. He is pushing for swift action before the legislative session ends in November.

“The time is now,” Rozzi said during an afternoon news conference outside the city-county building downtown.

The so-called “window of opportunity” proposal would create a two-year opening for new civil claims against all abusers – whether they are part of the Catholic Church or not. The measure would suspend statute of limitations restrictions that prevent new claims from people over age 30.

Rozzi said last month’s release of a grand jury report that detailed allegations of more than 1,000 children against 300 Catholic clergy members has brought new urgency to the proposal, which was scrapped early last year after senators raised concerns over its constitutionality.

Those concerns, based on testimony from former Attorney General Bruce Castor, remain, said Jennifer Kocher, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre.

Corman has asked Attorney General Josh Shapiro for his legal opinion on the proposal, Kocher said. Shapiro has said he supports the proposal, which was one of the grand jury’s recommendations for reducing childhood sexual abuse in the state, but has not publicized an analysis of its constitutionality.

The state House has supported the proposal before, and Rozzi said he expects the chamber to vote for it next week. Then it would go to the Senate.

“When it comes over we will take it under review, meet with our caucus and see where we want to go from there,” Kocher said.

Rozzi plans to introduce the proposal as an amendment to Senate Bill 261, which includes a number of other reforms to help victims of childhood sexual abuse. The reforms include extending the statute of limitations for civil abuse claims to age 50 and making it easier for victims to sue institutions.

An earlier Rozzi bill, House Bill 1947, included language to create an unlimited opportunity for adults to sue over childhood abuse. Sen. Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, repackaged much of the language into SB 261 but dropped the opportunity for adults over age 30 to file civil claims over childhood abuse, citing the constitutionality concerns. The bill passed the Senate unanimously in February 2017.

Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline, restated his support for the proposal Tuesday. Fontana called the concerns over the measure’s constitutionality “insulting and disgraceful.” He has said that if someone wants to challenge the proposal’s constitutionality, the courts should decide on the matter.

Attorneys for abuse victims have challenged the constitutionality claims, pointing out that at least four other states have passed some form of civil window for abuse claims. The other states include California, Minnesota, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

If an amended Senate Bill 261 clears the House, the Senate could vote it up or down or hold a conference to try to hash out differences with the House. The House has nine scheduled voting days and the Senate has 10 before the 2017-18 session ends in November.

Wes Venteicher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Wes at 412-380-5676, wventeicher@tribweb.com or via Twitter @wesventeicher.

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