2-year window for child sex abuse suits advances in House

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - A proposal to give victims of child sexual abuse a two-year window to sue over allegations that would otherwise be too old to pursue was overwhelmingly approved by the state House on Monday, as supporters cheered from the gallery.

The 171-23 vote was on an amendment to adopt the window, a recommendation contained in last month's grand jury report that found about 300 Roman Catholic priests had victimized children at six of the state's Roman Catholic dioceses over 70 years. The report accused senior church leaders of covering it up.

The bill, which could get a final House vote Tuesday, would also give victims more time to file lawsuits, limited under current law to until the victim turns 30, and eliminate all time limits for criminal prosecutions in such cases going forward. It was the first legislative session since the grand jury report's release on Aug. 14.

"The world is watching what we're doing," said Rep. Mark Rozzi, a Berks County Democrat who spoke of his own victimization as a teenager by a priest. "Do you stand with victims, or do you stand with pedophiles or the institutions that protect pedophiles?"

Opponents argued that retroactive changes to the statute of limitations violate the state constitution , a question likely to end up in the courts if the bill becomes law.

MORE: Pennsylvania priests molested over 1,000 children, per report | Key dates in the Pennsylvania church abuse scandal

Rep. Michael Corr, R-Montgomery, said government does not have the right to take away a "vested" right to use existing time limits in law as a defense. Corr said there is an "ample body of law to suggest that the amendment, unfortunately, is unconstitutional."

A final House vote could occur Tuesday, and if it passes it will go back to face an uncertain future in the Senate. The top-ranking Senate Republican, President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati of Jefferson County, has also argued that the retroactive window violates the state constitution.

The state's Catholic dioceses announced Friday that they are willing to set up a victims' compensation fund - as Scarnati has also proposed - but offered no details about funding or how it would work.

Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, praised passage of the Rozzi amendment, calling it "a huge step forward for the abused" and urging lawmakers to send it to him.

For the full grand jury report, see here.