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Adult child-abuse victims and allies are fighting to eliminate the statute of limitations

“You close your eyes and think for a second — while you’re being raped, you tell me if you know what a statute of limitations is.”

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CP PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY LISA CUNNINGHAM
  • CP Photo Illustration by Lisa Cunningham

If you look at the legislation that Pennsylvania state Rep. Mark Rozzi has sponsored over the past year, you’ll notice a theme. 

In February, Rozzi (D-Berks County) proposed a resolution designating April 2016 as “Sexual Assault Awareness Month.” In March, he co-sponsored a bill to add child sex abuse as an exception to sovereign-immunity laws. And his current fight to pass House Bill 1947 would eliminate the criminal statute of limitation on child sexual-abuse cases.

For Rozzi, sexual assault isn’t just another legislative issue. It’s the reason he ran for office in 2012. Rozzi was molested by an Allentown Diocese priest when he was 13.

After being molested, in the 1980s, Rozzi did his best to move on from the trauma. But he was spurred to take action in 2009 after a second childhood friend committed suicide; both of them had been molested by the same priest. 

“When that happened, it triggered something in my life. I just couldn’t function anymore,” Rozzi says. “It came down to continuing where I was or standing up and fighting. I decided I’m going to do what I can, that I would expose my story to help others.”

But Rozzi found there were few resources for victims to expose their abusers. Under current state law, a survivor of child sex abuse that occurred after 2002 has until age 50 to file criminal charges, and until age 30 to initiate a civil suit. For victims like Rozzi, who were abused before 2002, there is no recourse.

“I had two years civilly and five years criminally to come forward. I was 13 years old,” Rizzo says. “Put yourself in my place. Put yourself in that shower. You close your eyes and think for a second — while you’re being raped, you tell me if you know what a statute of limitations is.” 

HB 1947 would eliminate time barriers to file criminal and civil cases for those abused after the bill becomes law. Key in this fight is a retroactivity portion of the bill that would give adults today the chance to challenge their abusers from long ago.

But time is of the essence. The last day of Pennsylvania’s legislative session is Oct. 26. If HB 1947 isn’t passed by then, advocates say, it will die.

The legislation is being challenged by a number of state groups like the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania, who say it’s unconstitutional.

“We do share concerns along with the business community and the Pennsylvania Senate about how a retroactive measure will conflict with the Pennsylvania Constitution,” Amy Hill, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, said in a statement.  

Supporters of the legislation say the constitutional argument is a smokescreen. They claim groups like the Catholic Conference are opposing the legislation because they could be financially burdened by civil lawsuits. 

But for adult victims of child sexual abuse, their fight isn’t about the money; it’s about protecting others. They say too many abusers are allowed to continue hurting children because their victims are too young to understand what is being done to them and to speak out. The key to ending such abuse, they say, is to ensure that victims are given the power to identify their abusers as adults. 

“They’ve taken away my right to protect children and that makes me angry,” says Shawn O’Mahony, who was molested as a child. “It’s been very frustrating. And I’m sure my story is just like so many others.”

O’Mahony is a Pittsburgh-area resident who was molested starting at age 10 by a neighbor. As a gay man, he says that as a child he didn’t come forward because his abuser made him feel embarrassed about his sexual orientation and what was being done to him. 

“I was molested for years. He tried to make me feel inferior,” says O’Mahony. “At that point in time, there were people making statements that gays and child molesters are the same. This is how it was back then.”

It took O’Mahony years to have the courage to come forward, but by then the statute of limitations had passed. At age 49, he says, he’s seen his abuser interacting with other children for years and believes they are being molested. For years he has notified police of his concerns, but says his worries have not been taken seriously.

“I’ve seen children being abused without being able to help them over the years,” says O’Mahony. “I’ve seen people in adulthood who had been molested for years by this person who overdosed on drugs. I’ve just watched this over the years and no one believed me.”

O’Mahony says his abuser’s actions went unchecked until evidence emerged that the man, who worked for decades as a teacher, was sending sexually explicit text messages to a student. He pled guilty to child-endangerment charges and was sentenced to seven years’ probation. O’Mahony was barred from getting involved in the case because he could be sued for defamation for any comments he made about the man.

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