Pennsylvania Capitol

The United States flag waves in the wind at the Pennsylvania Capitol building Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015, in Harrisburg.

HARRISBURG – The state House is moving two bills that would help victims of clerical abuse – one changing the statute of limitations moving forward and another calling for a Constitutional amendment to allow for civil lawsuits in cases that have passed the existing statute of limitations.

Both measures were approved by the House judiciary committee Monday afternoon.

House Bill 962 would change the statute of limitations moving forward by eliminating the criminal statute of limitations for serious sex crimes against children and giving victims until the age of 55 to sue. The current criminal statute of limitations for child sex crimes is when the victim turns 50 and the civil statute of limitations expires when the victim turns 30.

The bill was authored by state Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, who’s been the leading legislative champion for enacting reforms to held adult victims of childhood sex abuse.

Rozzi said he decided to author separate legislation to help future victims so that new victims are provided a path to justice as the state debates how to help past victims.

In addition to Rozzi’s legislation, the judiciary committee also approved HB 963, authored by state Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair, that would ask voters whether there should be a Constitutional amendment to create a two-year window for victims to sue the Catholic Church or other organizations that covered up for child predators.

Legislative leaders in the state House have dubbed the two-bill package “The Pennsylvania Hidden Predator Act.” With Monday’s committee vote, the measures are on schedule for final passage in the state House as soon as Wednesday. Both would go to the Senate for consideration.

The Senate, in February 2017, unanimously passed legislation similar to the measure now proposed by Rozzi. That legislation was later amended to included retroactive provisions and didn't become law when the House and Senate couldn't agree on the final form of the bill.

But it's unclear whether the Rozzi legislation or Gregory's constitutional will gain traction in the Senate, Rozzi said.

"This is the first step in the process," he said.

And as a resolution for a possible Constitutional amendment, even if Gregory’s bill passes both chambers this year, it must be approved in a second legislative session before it goes before voters in a statewide referendum.

The issue of changing the law to help victims has become a lightning rod topic at the Capitol in the wake of revelations in a statewide grand jury report released last August that 300 priests had abused 1,000 victims over decades. The state House in September voted 171-23 to pass legislation that would have allowed victims of old child sex crimes to file lawsuits, but the measure died in the Senate.

Senate Republican leaders and church officials have questioned whether the state Constitution would allow the change. Most advocates for changing the law agree that it would be illegal to change the criminal statute of limitations retroactively, but say that changing the civil law to allow for lawsuits should be OK.

Rozzi said that after the Supreme Court ruled in December that 11 names of priests redacted when the grand jury report was released to the public, it left him more uncertain of how the state’s top court would rule if asked to decide the Constitutionality of a civil window.

“I think we’re better off in the hands of the voters of Pennsylvania than in the hands of the Supreme Court,” he adding that if the court were to decide that the civil window was unconstitutional, it would be “devastating” to victims.

The only lawmaker to oppose the measures in the judiciary committee was state Rep. Paul Schemel, R-Franklin.

He said that the move to change the statute of limitations seems to echo the kinds of “overreach” from the 1980s and 1990s that the state is now trying to correct through criminal justice reforms.

He added that even though the grand jury had called for a two-year window, it didn’t ask for the civil statute of limitations to be changed to 55 for new victims.

Rozzi said the changes are necessary because of how long it takes victims to come forward. The average age at which a victim of childhood sex abuse will come forward is 52, Rozzi said.

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.