HARRISBURG, Pa. – The Pennsylvania House of Representatives moved Wednesday to toughen penalties for people who do not report suspicions about repeated child sexual abuse and make it explicit that nondisclosure terms in contracts cannot prevent people from talking to police in child molestation investigations.
Both proposals are based on recommendations in a landmark grand jury report last year into the sexual abuse of children by about 300 Roman Catholic clergy in the state, going back seven decades.
Lawmakers voted 162-22 for the reporting proposal .
The only member who spoke in opposition was Rep. Paul Schemel, R-Franklin, who said it will be hard for people to remember, decades later, why they did not report suspected abuse.
"Our due process rights under the law are slipping away through our fingers while we do nothing," Schemel said.
Lawmakers are also considering legislation to eliminate the criminal statute of limitations for child sexual abuse. If that passes, it will also apply to mandated reporters who fail to properly report ongoing abuse.
Also Wednesday, state representatives unanimously approved a bill that says nondisclosure agreements , often part of civil settlements in abuse cases, should specify that they do not prohibit cooperation with police.
The main sponsor, Rep. Tarah Toohil, R-Luzerne, said those contracts are already unenforceable, but the bill's additional provisions would spell it out, "written in black and white."
Both bills were sent to the Senate. There, the top lawyer for majority Republicans said, they will be reviewed to see how they compare to legislation that was drafted in that chamber last year but never brought up for a vote.
"The grand jury made the general recommendations, but no precise language was offered. If the House bills are consistent to what we drafted last year, then we will likely consider the bills," said Drew Crompton, chief of staff to Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson.
Toohil said targets of the grand jury investigation misused nondisclosure agreements to attempt to silence abuse victims and keep them from cooperating with police.
The state House has also sent the Senate legislation based another grand jury recommendation: a constitutional amendment that would create a two-year window to allow victims to bring civil claims over abuse that would otherwise be too old to pursue.
The state's attorney general, Democrat Josh Shapiro, said the House action represented a clear step forward. Shapiro's office oversaw the grand jury investigation.
"Just as our commonwealth was a leader in investigating and prosecuting clergy sexual abuse, it is imperative that Pennsylvania also now be a leader in enacting reforms to protect victims and ensure this kind of abuse and cover-up can never happen again," Shapiro said in a statement. "I stand with survivors as we urge the Pennsylvania Senate to swiftly pass the grand jury reforms."