Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks County, and a victim of sex abuse as a child, speaks at the Crime Victim Awareness Rally in the Rotunda at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Apr. 11, 2016. Mark Pynes | firstname.lastname@example.org
Michele Gonsman hasn't had the chance to take to court the man who sexually abused her when she was a child. The statute of limitations on the crime had expired by the time she was ready to come forth.
Gonsman hasn't given up hope of getting justice. On Monday — just two hours before the Pennsylvania House of Representative was scheduled to hold a hearing on a bill that would reform the law — she joined scores other victims of child sexual abuse and sex crimes to push for its passage.
Gonsman said the issue of reforming the law is not an issue of the Catholic Church— a grand jury report concluding that priests in the Altoona-Johnstown diocese abused hundreds of children is an impetus for the bill — but one that affects thousands of other victims across the county. Gonsman was abused by a neighbor.
"They have no idea how many people they are impacting," she said.
Hundreds of adults who were sexually abused as children by priests in Philadelphia and the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese will be watching the House this week as it takes up a bill that would reform the statute of limitations.
Indeed, on Monday the speakers who took the podium to share their heartfelt stories of being victimized, or of family members who were victims of crimes, pleaded for reform.
The House on Monday is scheduled to take up House Bill 1947, which calls for the elimination of civil and criminal statutes for such sex crimes going forward. An amendment attached to the bill would waive sovereign immunity to the state, meaning, for instance, school district employees would not be immune from lawsuits.
The bill was introduced last week in committee by House Judiciary Committee chairman, Rep. Ron Marsico, (R-Dauphin). The bill is about the 12th bill to pass through committee or the House since 2006 calling for reform. Almost all the bills have been defeated.
Under current law, victims of child sexual abuse are barred from seeking civil action after they reach the age of 30. Victims can bring criminal charges against offenders until they reach 50 years of age — but only if the victim turned 18 years old after Aug. 27, 2002. The law allows victims older than that to report until their 30th birthday.
Marsico's bill would eliminate all statutes – civil and criminal – in cases of sexual abuse; it would also extend the the age limit for civil action to 50. HB 1947, however, contains no retroactive measures. That means none of the hundreds of victims out of Altoona-Johnstown or the Archdiocese of Philadelphia would have a chance at justice.
Victims and their advocates have ratcheted their efforts calling for reform in the wake of the grand jury report on sexual abuse and efforts to cover it up in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese. Other investigations about 10 years ago found identical patterns of child sex abuse by clergy - and its concealment - across the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
Frances Samber said she had to attend the rally to be the voice for her brother Michael Unglo, who lost his battle with depression in 2010, years after being sexually abused by a priest All Saints Church in Etna in the Pittsburgh Diocese.
"People can't forget that there are hundreds of thousands of voices silenced because abuse led them to suicide, drugs and alcohol..and eventually they took their life," Samber said. "They were never given their day in court."
She said Monday would have been her brother's birthday.
Rep. Mark Rozzi, (D-Berks), introduced as the "face of statute of limitations reform," said he was calling on all his House colleagues to support an amendment that would attach a window component to Marsico's bill. Rozzi's amendment would suspend expired statutes to allow victims whose legal rights have expired to come forth and seek justice.
Rozzi, a survivor of clergy sex abuse said he had stood at the same podium four years to the day: "It's ironic that today we have a chance to put an amendment to this bill to give justice to the victims."
Filling the Rotunda with a thundering voice, Rozzi vowed that perpetrators who have eluded the law will face justice.
"They will be held accountable," he said.
Angela Quarles, who shared the memories of her friend who was murdered by her husband said the pain never goes away.
"It doesn't go away," she said, her voice quivering. "It stays fresh and alive in our hearts."
Please pray for this bill to pass, and please phone your state representative if you are in Pennsylvania.