The Pennsylvania House of Representatives on Tuesday passed — for the fourth time this year — a measure that would open up a window in the commonwealth’s statute of limitations in order to allow survivors of childhood sexual abuse a two-year legal window to file suit.
House Bill 1 — which would create a ballot measure by which voters could approve an amendment to the state constitution allowing for the limitations window — was given final passage by a bipartisan vote of 147-54.
All of the chamber’s Democrats, and roughly half of its Republicans, voted in favor. The measure now faces likely inaction in the Senate, where GOP leadership has said that the limitations window will not be entertained unless packaged with two other constitutional amendments that have a sharp partisan divide.
The House last month passed House Bill 2 by a 134-67 vote, which would establish the limitations window by simple statute, without amending the constitution; HB1 is intended as a backstop against critics who have said the limitations window would otherwise be unconstitutional.
“Today we pass House Bill 1, sending the fourth piece of legislation over to the Senate to give victims what they’ve always wanted,” Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, the bill’s prime sponsor, said during floor remarks Tuesday.
This is “truth and justice, but most of all they want to expose their perpetrators to protect your children, your grandchildren,” Rozzi continued.
Rozzi – who served as House speaker earlier this year as a consensus nominee between Democrats and Republican leadership — has been open in discussing his own abuse as a teen by a Catholic priest.
Limitations window legislation has been sought in Harrisburg for years, largely on the heels of the abuse scandal in the Catholic church. The state’s landmark 2018 grand jury report documented over 1,000 cases of abuse by 300 Catholic priests in the commonwealth, and accused the church of shuffling priests between churches to conceal the problem.
Previous iterations of the legislation have been stymied either by political brinksmanship or, in 2020, a publication error by the Pennsylvania Department of State that kept the referendum off the ballot.
Pennsylvania statutes regarding the filing of civil cases have limitations which vary based on the type of incident, when it occurred, and the age of the victim — thus generating the call for a clean, unrestricted window to file cases in light of the broad scope of abuse in the Catholic church.
During meetings earlier this year, some House Republicans voiced objections to the measure on its face, questioning the wisdom of permitting cases where evidence may be decades old, and raising concerns about the financial impact.
Democrats have broadly rejected these arguments, as Rozzi did Tuesday, saying that in many cases “victims are getting pennies on the dollar. It’s never going to put their life back together.”
Rather, according to many proponents, the primary value is in allowing victims a chance to seek closure through an adjudicated process.
“There’s many days I say I wish I could take a putty knife and scrape it out of my head,” Rozzi said of his own memories of abuse.
The anticipated hold-up in the Senate, however, pertains to a partisan battle over matters unrelated to the abuse issue itself.
In January, the Republican majority in the Senate passed a bill that would allow for the constitutional creation of a limitations window, but that bill was packaged with two other constitutional amendment ballot measures – one that would create stricter voter ID requirements, and one which would give the legislature power to kill regulations without the governor’s consent.
Both measures were viewed by Democrats as GOP power-grabs, and the Democratic majority in the House passed rules limiting constitutional amendment bills to single subjects. House Democrats voted in committee to strip the two amendment referenda from the Senate bill.
On Monday, House Republicans moved to add the same ballot measures to the House limitations window bill, saying it was equally crucial to give voters a chance to be heard on voter ID and regulatory reform.
The motion was quashed on a party-line vote, with Rep. Matt Bradford, D-Montgomery, saying the rules “made it very clear that the days of Christmas-treeing constitutional amendments is over in this body.”
But Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, has said the standalone statute of limitations reform amendment will be dead on arrival in the Senate without the inclusion of the other two amendment items.
“The House would be best served if they would pass Senate Bill 1 as we presented it to them,” Pittman said Monday.
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