Mark Rozzi

State Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks County, speaks at a rally calling on the Legislature to approve a two-year window to allow victims of old child sex crimes to sue in civil court.

HARRISBURG — The state House voted 171-23 in favor of a proposal that would change the state’s statute of limitations law to open a two-year window to allow victims of old child sex crimes to sue in civil court.

The House is scheduled to hold a final vote on the amended bill today.

The Senate is likely to take the matter up next week.

Statute of limitation reform has emerged as the most prominent controversy of the fall legislative session, which began Monday.

Opening a window for lawsuits was one of the recommendations made by a statewide investigative grand jury that found that more than 300 predator priests had sexually abused at least 1,000 child victims in six dioceses over seven decades. Almost all of the cases cited by the grand jury took place too long ago for victims to now sue for damages.

State Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks County, has been championing the push to give victims the ability to sue over old child sex crimes. Monday, he called the vote “historic” while adding that the decision should be an easy one for lawmakers.

“Do you stand with victims or do you stand with pedophiles and the institutions that protect pedophiles?” he asked.

At a Monday evening rally in support of the proposed changes, Johnstown native Shaun Dougherty, speaking on behalf of victims of priest abuse, said he’d been told not to make comments that might offend lawmakers considering whether to support the proposed changes.

“I’m offended that I’ve been coming for the number of years I’ve been coming here” to get the changes, Dougherty said. “Enough is enough. The time is up.”

Gov. Tom Wolf attended the rally to show his support for the proposal and said he hopes that the findings of the grand jury create “a new sense of urgency” to pass the reforms.

The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, the lobbying organization for the Catholic dioceses, on Friday said the bishops would support the creation of an independent victims compensation fund, rather than opening a window to allow for lawsuits.

State Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-Bucks County, said that might have been an acceptable option if the church had proposed that kind of compensation fund when the first grand jury report targeting the Philadelphia Archdiocese came out in 2005.

“Not now,” he said. “It’s too late.

Republican state Rep. Brad Roae of Crawford County was one of the lawmakers who voted against Monday’s change.

Roae said he opposed the amendment because he thinks it will prevent the Senate from passing the legislation, which included other needed reforms. Included in the original bill were moves to eliminate the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution of child sex abuse and giving future victims until the age of 50 to file civil lawsuits. Under current law, victims have until 50 to seek criminal prosecution and 30 to sue.

“The Rozzi amendment will probably kill the bill, so I voted no,” Roae said. “The likely outcome is no progress at all will be made. Sometimes a weaker bill that can actually become law is better than a stronger bill that will not pass.”

Lawmakers, particularly in the Senate, have questioned whether the proposed window for civil lawsuits would be legal under the state Constitution.

“Not only is it Constitutional,” Attorney General Josh Shapiro said at the evening rally, “it is just.”

Earlier Monday, former legislators came to the Capitol to join in the calls for action.

“Voting for these changes is the right thing to do,” said Mark Singel, a former state senator, lieutenant governor and acting governor.

“All of us standing here mark our careers by the positive good we leave behind,” Singel said. “This may be the most important vote” current lawmakers ever make.

John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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