Two legislative measures, one designed to assist victims of domestic abuse and the other to support sexual abuse survivors, got attention in Harrisburg last week and drew praise from Chester County sources.

The first, Act 79, was signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf. It mandates that those convicted of domestic violence or subject to final Protection From Abuse (PFA) restraining orders surrender their firearms within 24 hours, rather than the current 60 days.

In addition, those defendants must surrender their firearms to law enforcement. They cannot give their guns to a friend or family member. The law grew out of legislation first offered by state Sen. Tom Killion, R-9th, of Middletown, whose district covers a portion of Chester County.

In a letter to local law enforcement agencies touting the bill, West Chester Police Chief Scott Bohn, praised the new law as a “new tool to assist us in this ongoing battle against domestic gun violence” across the state. His letter, signed with state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, noted that from 2008 to 2017, 1,200 people died in domestic abuse encounters in the state, and that abused women were five times more likely to be killed by their abuser if he or she owns a firearm.

Bohn wrote the letter as president of the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association.

The new law was cited by the Democratic candidate for Chester County District Attorney as a step to make violence victims safer.

“I appreciate that Governor Wolf has signed Act 79 into law,” Deborah Ryan said in a press release issued on Friday. “Any step that Pennsylvania takes to provide support of and protection for survivors of violence and abuse in any form is a step in the right direction. The health and quality of our community must be defined by our willingness to safeguard our most vulnerable members.”

Ryan, a former prosecutor with the DA’s Office and head of its Child Abuse Unit, also praised the state House of Representatives for passing two bills that would widen the amount of time that those abused as young people have to pursue criminal and civil penalties against their alleged abusers.

House bill 962, passed Wednesday, eliminates the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse crimes, while the proposed constitutional amendment permits a retroactive two-year period for civil lawsuits related to child sexual abuse on cases in which the statute of limitation has expired, she said in her release. Under current law, a child sexual abuse survivor has until the age of 50 to file a criminal complaint and age 30 to file a civil suit. 

“We know that child sexual abuse is one of the most underreported crimes,” Ryan, who was responsible for the prosecution of those child abusers, said. “At least one in 10 children will experience child sexual abuse before age 18, but most will either delay reporting for months or years, if they come forward at all.” (The bill) and a companion constitutional amendment related to sexual abuse “will allow survivors to seek the justice they deserve,” she said.

“Child sexual abuse is a public health epidemic,” she added. “The long-term consequences can have devastating implications, including PTSD, depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol addiction and other serious consequences.”

The bill was supported by nine state representatives from the county’s legislative districts. It now moves to the state Senate, where it has drawn support from state Sen. Katie Muth, D-44th, of Montgomery County, whose district covers the northern half of Chester County, among others.

An attempt to get comment from incumbent District Attorney Tom Hogan on his position on the two bills was unsuccessful.  

Their future in the Senate, however, is uncertain. The House in September voted overwhelmingly for a retroactive two-year window for victims of child sexual abuse to sue, but the measure was blocked by Senate Republicans. The Senate’s top-ranking member, President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, was among those who argued retroactivity was unconstitutional.

Constitutional amendments must pass both chambers in two consecutive two-year legislative terms before going to voters for final approval.

The proposed protections for child abuse survivors come after a grand jury produced a report that said about 300 Roman Catholic priests had abused children at six of the state’s eight dioceses over seven decades, and accused church hierarchy of covering it up.

The  two-year window was one of four provisions recommended by the grand jury report in August. Several other states have adopted something similar previously, and lawmakers in New York and New Jersey have approved windows in recent months.

It is opposed by Catholic bishops, who call it unconstitutional, and for-profit insurers, who say they are concerned about being forced to pay out for liabilities for which premiums were never collected.

The Associated Press contributed to this story. 

To contact staff writer Michael P. Rellahan call 610-696-1544.

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