Harrisburg – The Senate Judiciary Committee Monday afternoon took a surprise vote on and unanimously passed Senate Bill 261, legislation that would in some cases eliminate the civil and criminal statute of limitations for child sex abuse cases.
Identical to the stalled version of House Bill 1947 from last session, the Senate bill advanced during Monday’s committee meeting lacks a controversial retroactivity component that would allow currently barred cases to be brought by victims.
The retroactivity component, while it overwhelmingly passed in the House last session, was stripped by the Senate over concerns that it would violate the Pennsylvania Constitution’s remedies clause.
The haggle over the component’s inclusion in the legislation caused the bill to die last session without being sent to the governor for enactment.
According to the bill’s prime sponsor, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson), the legislation contains a number of good provisions and would withstand constitutional muster since it does not contain the retroactivity provisions.
“I think a lot of the good in this bill got missed over the fact that much of the debate centered around the reverter language that came over in the bill from the House,” he told committee members Monday.
“Clearly, this bill reflects what I and a majority of the Senate have believed last year: that this bill musters constitutionality; that this bill does a lot of good for victims going forward; and that this bill helps level the playing field between public and non-public institutions in the sex crimes arena.”
He said his view on the retroactivity component has not changed since the constitution hasn’t changed, but he did not go so far as to say that there is not room for negotiation on other areas of the bill.
“I’m not so sure that there is compromise on the constitution, but I’m sure that there are other areas that we could discuss with the House, and we’d prefer to wait and discuss with the House,” he said.
One of the bill’s chief proponents in the House, Rep. Mark Rozzi (D-Berks), told The PLS Reporter Monday that while he is glad to see the Senate make the issue a priority by moving the legislation quickly this session, he will not compromise on the retroactivity component.
“We are going to hold firm to our guns that any legislation that is going to help victims of sexual abuse must include a retroactive piece,” he said. “I think everybody understands that this bill will not be the final product, but it is a bill that we look forward to the bill coming over to the House, us amending it, and sending it back to the Senate.”
On the Republican side, caucus spokesperson Steve Miskin said it is not clear that much has changed in the House in regard to the chamber’s insistence on a retroactivity component.
“We do hope to get a consensus piece of legislation, but it’s not clear where every one of our members is,” he said. “The votes last year were pretty overwhelming and I anticipate a very contentious discussion when that comes up again in the House.”
The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference – likely the entity to be most affected by the legislation – held off on a specific comment on Senate Bill 261, noting they were just made aware of the legislation.
However, spokesperson Amy Hill said the Catholic community “is committed to healing and recovery among survivors” by offering lifelong resources like counseling and addiction treatment for those with substance abuse issues.
"In addition, the Catholic dioceses of Pennsylvania adhere to strict safe environment practices, including training for employees, clergy and volunteers in identifying and responding to signs of abuse. Our dioceses enforce a zero-tolerance policy for clergy, employees and volunteers accused of abuse," she said.
"Past allegations have already been reported to local district attorneys and have now also been shared with the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office. Credible allegations of misconduct result in permanent removal from ministry, no matter how long ago the abuse took place. Every adult who interacts with children – including clergy, employees and volunteers – is subject to thorough background checks."
The bill could be voted on by the full Senate as soon as Wednesday.
Jason Gottesman is the Harrisburg bureau chief for The PLS Reporter, a non-partisan, online news site devoted to covering Pennsylvania government.