End Silence about Sexual Misconduct
By Beth Brelje
November 16, 2017
|Reading Eagle: Beth Brelje | Delilah Rumburg, CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, speaks at a news conference Wednesday in the state Capitol about legislation introduced by state Sen. Judy Schwank, left, to outlaw nondisclosure agreements regarding sexual misconduct. With Schwank and Rumburg are, from left, state Sens. Art Haywood, Lawrence M. Farnese Jr., Anthony H. Williams, Vincent J. Hughes and Christine M. Tartaglione.|
State Sen. Judy Schwank has offered legislation that she says will make it harder to keep sexual misconduct a secret in Pennsylvania.
The measure would make it illegal to silence victims with nondisclosure agreements to settle cases of sexual misconduct.
“For too long, sexual predators have hidden behind legal practices like nondisclosure agreements or settlements in which a victim agrees to not sue or discuss terms of a deal in exchange for a monetary settlement,” said Schwank, a Ruscombmanor Township Democrat. “If the agreement is violated, the other party can sue and seek damages from the victim.”
Her legislation would end this practice.
“Sexual predators should not be allowed to hide their secrets in the shadows of nondisclosure agreements, escaping justice because of their power, wealth or prestige,” Schwank said Wednesday during a news conference about the legislation at the state Capitol.
“The legislation we are introducing, Senate Bill 999, will protect victims of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct from being silenced by banning those agreements that penalize them for telling what happened and who did it,” Schwank said, and added that times are changing as more victims come forward.
The bill defines sexual misconduct as harassment, stalking or assault of a person with the intent to engage the person in conduct of a sexual nature.
Nondisclosure agreements enable sexual harassment to grow like a cancer, Schwank said.
“When these agreements are in place, they close the door to the public's need to hold predators and enablers responsible for their actions,” she said. “The secrecy they are given allows their misconduct to grow and spread harm among others. The law should not be an escape hatch from criminal and civil liability.”
If enacted, the law would ban a nondisclosure agreement in sexual misconduct cases from being part of any future settlement, and it would reach back and void any past nondisclosure agreement signed before the legislation was enacted, if it can be proven that it was signed under duress. That includes signing the agreement while incompetent, impaired or a minor, even if signing was under counsel of an attorney or parent.
The measure would prevent barriers to disclosing an offender's identity such as requiring the destruction or removal of any evidence but would allow victims to keep their names and settlement amounts private.
“We are at a tipping point,” said Delilah Rumburg, CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape. “We are at an amazing time right now in our country when we can really make a difference in preventing sexual assault from happening.
“People are using their voices and disclosing what they felt they had to keep quiet. That's what has enabled a culture of sexual harassment and abuse to continue. So the more people who speak out, I really think we will begin to see a reduction in the number of cases.”
She predicts the law would act as a deterrent for predators who do not want to have bad behavior made public, and it will help change the culture.
“We see survivors afraid to come forward because of the repercussions that might follow if they disclose,” Rumburg said. “Sadly, others have had the choice to disclose made for them through nondisclosure agreements or out-of-court settlements, forcing their silence, even when there are new allegations of abuse or other victims coming to light. That can compound the emotional torment that many survivors endure.”
A nondisclosure agreement allows a person in a position of power to exercise more power to protect their own reputation and hide their actions, she said. These agreements help bad actors maintain positions of power where they can access more victims.
Rumburg named some of the high-profile cases in recent news, including Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, actor/comedian Bill Cosby and former Fox News talk show host Bill O'Reilly.
“The truth is, this happens in all of our communities — the high-profile business leader, the clergy member, the government official, the athlete or our neighbor across the street,” Rumburg said. “Abusers thrive in secrecy and their ability to sweep their actions under the rug. … We must say no more.
“We must not accept silence as the price for civil justice.”