Editorial: Rep. Rozzi, HB 1947 not going away
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia is learning that while a key aspect of House Bill 1947 might be going away, its biggest booster is not.
State Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-126, of Berks County, the man who authored the controversial language in the bill that would have retroactively extended the window for victims of child sexual abuse that occurred decades ago to sue the molesters and those that employed them, took his case to the church this week.
Rozzi knows a little something about the church and sexual abuse. He was an altar boy and a victim decades ago. Now he’s a state representative.
His colleagues in the House gave HB 1947 a stunning, resounding victory in a 190-15 vote to extend the age when victims could sue their tormentors and those who employed them or enabled them from age 30 to age 50.
Gov. Tom Wolf indicated he supported the controversial language in the bill, which would also lift the statute of limitations for criminal charges in such cases. Wolf said if it wound up on his desk, he would sign it.
The bill then went to the Senate. That’s when opponents of the measure, most notably the Catholic Church, in particular the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, rolled up their sleeves and went to work.
Archbishop Charles Chaput sent a letter that was either read or mentioned at every Mass in every parish in the archdiocese. Chaput did not mince words, characterizing the legislation as no less than an attack on the church. He urged parishioners to contact their state senator and oppose the measure, in large part because of a belief that it would treat victims of public institutions differently unfairly than those of private institutions, and questioning the constitutionality of the retroactive language that had been penned by Rozzi.
Several members of the Delaware County House delegation found themselves feeling heat, both from the archdiocese and their local parish priests. State Rep. Nick Miccarelli, R-162, of Ridley Park actually had his name casually dropped in the parish bulletin with a friendly reminder to the faithful that he had supported the bill.
The church, clearly taken aback by the surprising approval in the House of an idea that had long been opposed in Harrisburg, was not taking any chances. It put on a full-court press, making a passionate argument against retroactivity in a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Its prayers were answered. The bill passed the Senate, but only after the language that would allow past victims to file suit was modified. Victims would have until age 50 to file civil actions against their molesters, but only in cases that occurred after the bill becomes law. It’s not back in the House.
The latest battle over such legislation was fueled by still another damning grand jury report, this time from the Johnstown-Altoona archdiocese.
An outraged Rozzi led the charge to give past victims their day in court. And he has no intention of stopping now, despite the setback in the House.
The state rep stood on the steps of the Basilica of SS. Peter & Paul, the downtown headquarters of the archdiocese, and tossed copies of grand jury reports of sexual abuse by priests. He vowed to rewrite the House bill and once again include a two-year window for past victims to file suit.
“One of my main messages today was it’s not over by any means,” Rozzi said. “For over 50 years, this institution, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and its leadership, the archbishops and in fact all Roman Catholic dioceses across the state of Pennsylvania believed they were above the law, that they didn’t have to abide by our laws. And now they hide behind our laws.”
Of course, state representatives don’t have that luxury. They now are wearing a bull’s eye and no doubt will feel the heat once again generated by those who oppose Rozzi’s plan, most notably the archdiocese, the National Catholic Conference and the insurance industry.
Rozzi, who said he was motivated to visit the basilica because of Chaput’s opposition to his bill, was joined by several activists as well as Marci Hamilton, a lawyer who has represented clergy abuse victims. She urged elected to “start representing the common good,” while reminding those gathered – and those not in attendance – of the separation of church and state.
“They’re supposed to serve the people, and not just one set of wealthy religious lobbyists,” she said.
Rozzi said he would re-introduce his legislation in the fall, including the push to once again allow those abused decades to seek their day in court today.
The sides in this epic battle have been clearly defined, with Rozzi, other victims and their advocates on one side, and the church on the other. In the middle will be state House members, wrestling with a most prickly legal and societal issue at the very time they are campaigning for re-election.
The fight over House Bill 1947 is not over, not by a long shot.
Mark Rozzi is not going away. If nothing else, he made that crystal clear this week.