Child sex abuse lawsuit ‘window’ amendment clears Pa. House

Written by on March 26, 2021

Child sex abuse lawsuit ‘window’ amendment clears Pa. House

Supporters say a two-year “window” to file lawsuits over older claims of abuse is needed to give victims a path to justice.

By Sam Dunklau  / WITF

March 26, 2021

State Sen. Katie Muth, D-Montgomery, center left, embraces Carolyn Fortney, who was sexually abused as a child by a Roman Catholic Priest, during a news conference at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Wednesday, April 10, 2019. Photo | Matt Rourke / AP Photo

Pennsylvania lawmakers on Wednesday finished a new first round of approvals for a constitutional amendment giving victims of child sexual abuse the power to file what would otherwise be outdated claims, but it will be 2023 at the earliest before it takes effect.

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The House voted 188 to 13 to approve the proposed constitutional amendment, which must pass both chambers in two consecutive two-year legislative sessions before going before voters as a referendum.

Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, said he was hopeful that lawmakers will also pass the window as regular legislation, as a state law would take effect more quickly while the slower constitutional amendment process continues.

He called it the first step in what he hopes will be a dual track process.

Supporters say a two-year “window” to file lawsuits over older claims of abuse is needed to give victims a path to justice, taking into account more recent revelations about molestation by Roman Catholic clergy or involving other institutions.

Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware, one of those who voted against it, said he was concerned the bill would expose public schools to litigation.

Rozzi said it would apply to public schools.

“We want to make sure that all victims are on the same playing field here,” including institutions that covered up abuse, Rozzi said. “We’re going to hold you accountable, bottom line.”

Until last month, the expectation had been that the amendment, which passed the state House and Senate in the legislative session that ended in November, would be passed again early this year and then go to voters as a referendum in the May 18 primary.

However, in early February the Department of State under Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf said it had neglected to advertise the amendment as required last year, so lawmakers had the start the process over. Both chambers now must pass the same amendment in the 2023-24 session before a referendum can be held.

Many victims lost the right to sue when they turned 18 or were young adults, depending on Pennsylvania state law at the time. The proposed amendment would give them two years to sue over child sexual abuse claims, no matter when it occurred.

Shaun Dougherty is one of those survivors. He says George Koharchik, a priest in the Altoona-Johnstown Catholic Diocese, sexually abused him for years, from the age of 10. Koharchik is accused in a 2016 Grand Jury report on alleged child sexual abuse in the diocese. He admitted to the grand jury that he molested boys and was removed from active ministry in 2012.

Dougherty said he supports amending the constitution to give survivors with expired cases more time to sue. But like Rozzi, he wants lawmakers to create a state law doing the same thing in order to open that window faster. Neighboring New York and New Jersey both approved so-called “Look Back” legislation within the last few years.

“It is unconscionable to make victims wait an additional three years after they were just dashed. It is not good for anybody’s mental or physical well-being,” he said.

The Johnstown native and one-time state Senate candidate said though it may take years for the latest amendment to come before voters, he said he plans to continue lobbying state lawmakers to see it through to the end.

“While on the one hand I’m saying it’s a colossal waste of breath, I still have to take the time to waste that breath and let them know that’s my breath on the back of your neck and I’m not going away,” Dougherty said. “This issue isn’t going away.”

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