Frustrated by the House Judiciary Committee chairman's reluctance to advance their bills, two Philadelphia Democrats, Mike McGeehan and Louise Williams Bishop, moved this week to circumvent the committee, filing a "discharge motion" to send their bills to the floor.
But the chairman, Ron Marsico (R., Dauphin), did them one better: He consolidated the bills and on Wednesday put it to a vote. It passed unanimously.
He said he was yielding to pressure from colleagues and would have preferred to wait until a task force he had formed on child-abuse legislation in the wake of the Sandusky scandal issued its final recommendations this fall. "However, a number of legislators have been insisting on our committee to act now, before the task force has completed its job," Marsico said.
He said the committee "came up with a constitutional solution that will put the monsters that prey on our children behind bars."
The amended bill would do away with the statute of limitations on criminal prosecutions in child-sexual-assault cases. It also would extend the statute of limitations in civil suits until the accuser reaches age 50.
Under current law, victims have until age 50 to bring criminal charges and until age 30 to sue alleged abusers.
The proposed changes have been opposed by the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference. A spokeswoman for the conference, Amy Hill, said Monday that undoing the statute of limitations in criminal and civil cases would make it "impossible for organizations to defend themselves" and would "only result in a flood of lawsuits and big checks for lawyers."
Bishop, 78 - who revealed in the wake of the Sandusky scandal that she had been abused in childhood by her stepfather - said she was glad to see the bill finally advance. "I didn't get everything I wanted," she said, "but it was more than we had."
She said that lifting the statute of limitations on criminal charges could especially help male victims, whom she said often suffer in silence for decades before finding the strength to come forward.
The measure's fate remains in question, however, since it must still be approved by the Rules Committee before it can get to the full House. A spokesman for that committee's chairman, Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny), said only that Turzai would review the bill.
The amended bill did not include a proposed two-year "window" for lawsuits by anyone older than the statute allows, a provision Marsico said could open the door to frivolous suits.
Tammy Lerner, vice president of the Bryn Mawr-based nonprofit Foundation to Abolish Sex Abuse, called the vote a "positive step forward," but said she was disappointed the bill no longer included the window for older victims to sue.
Lerner, speaking on the day Sandusky's jury began deliberating, said one need not look beyond that case to see how the current statute affects older accusers.
"There are victims who came forward," she said, "who are outside the current statutes by one or two years."
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