Bill to empower victims of sexual abuse in jeopardy as House and Senate clash


HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – Victims of sexual abuse are anxious.

Some say they are being re-victimized by a legislature split on a bill that would let them sue their abusers.

That bill, House Bill 1947, is in jeopardy with just three days left in the legislative session despite the fact that most lawmakers agree on most everything that’s in it.

Shaun Dougherty was in the Capitol advocating for HB 1947 this week. He was molested by a priest named in the attorney general’s report about the Johnstown-Altoona Catholic diocese.

“He sexually abused me; stair stepping from tickling to patting to fondling to groping to digital penetration,” Shaun said.

Shaun was 10 when the abuse started in 1980. The statute of limitations has expired for him to bring a civil suit. The House version of 1947 would extend the civil statute of limitations for future victims to the age of 50 and would also make it retroactive for people like Shaun.

But the Senate stripped the retroactivity out, passed it unanimously, and sent it back to the House. Senate Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson) said the House version, with retroactivity, is unconstitutional and since lawmakers are sworn to uphold the constitution he and the rest of the Senate couldn’t support it.

“We have something we can rest on. We can say to future victims you shall be heard,” Scarnati said in urging the House to pass its version and get it to Gov. Tom Wolf for passage and not risk scuttling the rest of the bill as the clock runs out on the session.

But Representative Mark Rozzi (D-Berks) is a past victim who is also being heard. He, too, was abused by a priest. He, too, has seen the statute of limitations expire. He needed to bring a civil suit by the age of 30. He says he and many other victims couldn’t grasp what happened to him and speak about it until he was in his 40’s.

Rozzi has aggressively and angrily blasted Senate leadership, and specifically Scarnati, for blocking retroactivity. Rozzi insists Scarnati is protecting the insurance industry and the Catholic church which stand to lose millions in abuse lawsuits.

“He (Rozzi) called me a hitman for the Catholic church and I’m in their back pocket,” Scarnati said with agitation. “I can assure you, Dennis, the checks only flow one way, from me to the Catholic church when I make my contribution every Sunday. They don’t flow from the church to me. That is so offensive and it’s an ethnic slur.”

But Rozzi makes no apologies and says he is a voice for the victims adding, “they (Senate leadership) refuse to stand up for victims and fight against big institutions that have colluded against victims. What is taking the legislature so long?”

The church fears retroactivity would bankrupt it. One diocesan official said he has no trouble paying to help victims but can’t stomach writing big checks to lawyers. Shaun has a response to that.

“Tough,” he said. “Tough. Let them write ’em. You don’t want to write checks, don’t molest children.”

Scarnati said Rozzi is on thin ice by advocating for a bill that would allow him (Rozzi) to sue and thus benefit financially. But Rozzi insists he wouldn’t pocket a dime and if any money was awarded he’d give it to children’s causes in Berks County.

So a House version of 1947 and a Senate version of 1947 are co-existing. One has retroactivity, one does not. Both would help future victims of sexual abuse. Nearly everyone supports nearly everything in them. But that one issue is threatening to scuttle the entire bill.Get breaking news, weather and traffic on the go. Download our News App and our Weather App for your phone and tablet.

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