Pa. House, at Long Last, Offers Hope to Victims of Child Sexual Abuse; Now It's up to the Senate
April 14, 2016
The state House voted 180-15 on Tuesday in favor of House Bill 1947, which would abolish the statute of limitations for future criminal cases of child sexual abuse, and extend the time by 20 years for victims to bring civil suits against their assailants and an agency whose negligence enabled the abuse. The bill would give victims until they turned 50 to bring civil cases, and it would be retroactive, so victims now between the ages of 30 and 50 could bring civil suits. It was opposed by the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania. It now may be referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The days aren’t always good for victims of childhood sexual abuse. Some days, some hours or moments, are clouded by trauma; some are occupied with the ongoing struggle to overcome shame and sorrow.
But Tuesday was a good day for many victims of child sexual abuse — a good and hopeful day.
Statute of limitations reform had been held up for years in the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Dauphin County Republican Rep. Ron Marsico.
Then, on March 1, state Attorney General Kathleen Kane unveiled an investigative grand jury report that said hundreds of children in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown had been sexually abused by at least 50 priests or religious leaders over at least 40 years, and two bishops had covered up the abuse.
As Kristen Houser of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape noted, “Pennsylvania has had so many of these cases, it’s getting harder and harder for any elected officials to ignore it.”
He actually sponsored House Bill 1947, though he refused to include a retroactive component.
Berks County Democratic state Rep. Mark Rozzi — who was sexually abused as a teenager by a Catholic priest — amended the bill on the floor to make the civil statute reform retroactive and allow victims up to age 50 to bring lawsuits for past abuse.
The bill wasn’t perfect — victims who already have reached or passed the age of 50 will remain unable to bring civil claims against their abusers, and we acknowledge their pain.
But it was progress, at long last.
“We started to crack the door to let the light in,” an emotional Rozzi said Wednesday, noting that the Senate could introduce a window of several years in which all victims, no matter their age, could bring civil lawsuits.
We hope the Senate considers this. We also agree with Rozzi when he says the Senate is on the clock now. “Pennsylvanians are watching,” Rozzi says. “They want this law to be enacted.”
We laud Rozzi for fighting so tenaciously for statute of limitations reform. And we are unmoved by the complaints of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference that the bill, if enacted, could bankrupt Catholic parishes and ministries that were not culpable in the sexual abuse cases.
Organizations have a responsibility to ensure that those who work for them are protecting the children in their care. And that responsibility should have been carried out all along.
We’re also unconvinced by the arguments of those in the Lancaster County delegation who voted against HB 1947.
Republican Reps. Bryan Cutler, Keith Greiner, Brett Miller and David Zimmerman were among the scant minority of 15 in voting against it.
Republican Reps. Mindy Fee, Steven Mentzer and Dave Hickernell, and Democratic Rep. Mike Sturla joined the overwhelming majority of members who voted for it, and we thank them for doing so.
Fee said she voted for the measure “in order to protect the rights of young victims of sexual abuse. There have been instances where young people have been so traumatized by abuse that it can take some time for them to come forward and, in my view, this is a reasonable attempt to address that.”
We completely agree.
Greiner said voting against it was “difficult,” and acknowledged that it can take decades for victims of child sexual abuse to come forward. But like Cutler, he cited concerns about the constitutionality of its retroactive component.
Zimmerman forwarded to LNP the response he is sending those who disagree with his vote. It includes this line: “I do not believe organizations should be held financially liable for the crimes committed by bad individuals, especially in instances where an organization may not have even been aware of any abuse because it was not reported at the time of the crime.”
Alas, some institutions have been found to be covering up the acts of “bad individuals.” And, as we’ve noted, child sexual abuse often is reported long after it occurred.
As for the concern about constitutionality, other states have extended their civil statute of limitations reforms retroactively. (It would indeed be unconstitutional to make a criminal statute retroactive.)
Should Pennsylvania’s law be challenged, we’re happy to let the courts decide.
We believe strongly that victims, including past victims, of child sexual abuse should get their days in court.
They deserve more good days.