A billboard on Route 119, near Williow Crossing in Hempfield urges, Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward and Gov. Tom Wolf to act on a bill to give adult survivors of child sexual abuse a day in court.

Child safety advocates launch billboard campaign against Sen. Kim Ward

Tribune-Review [Pittsburgh PA]

August 11, 2021

By Deb Erdley

[Photo above: A billboard on Route 119, near Williow Crossing in Hempfield urges, Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward and Gov. Tom Wolf to act on a bill to give adult survivors of child sexual abuse a day in court.]

Child sexual abuse prevention advocates are making good on their promise to keep the heat on state Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward for her refusal to advance a bill giving adult survivors of child sexual abuse their day in court.

This week, they took their battle to the Hempfield Republican’s backyard.

Child USAdvocacy placed two full-size highway billboards — one on Route 119 in Hempfield and a second on Route 30.

They include photos of Ward, Gov. Tom Wolf and the dark image of a child sitting cross-legged with her head down and a message that challenges the two politicians to “do something to stop child predators.” It urges the state Legislature to pass House Bill 951.

The bill that passed the House last spring would have given adult survivors of child sexual abuse a two-year window of opportunity to file lawsuits on claims outside the statute of limitations. The Senate Judiciary Committee later approved the measure, and advocates said they had overwhelming support in the Senate.

But Ward declined to bring the bill to a vote.

It was a bitter disappointment for child safety advocates who had been lobbying for such a measure for years. They saw support for it build after the 2018 statewide grand jury report that detailed hundreds of allegations of clergy child sexual abuse and cover-ups in Catholic dioceses across the state.

The stall in the Senate marked the second near-miss in a year for those seeking to open the courts to old complaints.

Just weeks earlier, a measure on a constitutional amendment to create a window of opportunity that was scheduled to go to a referendum in the May primary was pulled from the ballot because of an advertising oversight by the Wolf administration.

Seeking an alternative route to the courts, abuse survivors and advocacy organizations lobbied vigorously for House Bill 951 until the Legislature adjourned for the summer.

The billboards are the latest volley in their long-running battle.

Marci Hamilton, a constitutional law scholar and founder of Child USA, has worked on statute of limitations reforms in states across the country. She said advocates from several organizations including SNAP, a national association of clergy abuse survivors, and Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape have joined forces with her group and are working with abuse survivors to push for change in Pennsylvania.

“We are not going to stop this,” Hamilton said. “We’ll be doing more billboards in September, and we’re planning a rally in Harrisburg (on) Sept. 20 when the Legislature comes back.”

Ward not convinced

Ward, who has been targeted by advocacy groups since last spring, isn’t budging from her stand.

“The Pennsylvania Senate agrees all victims of childhood sexual abuse should have the ability to face their abusers,” Ward spokeswoman Erica Clayton Wright said. “We, too, are frustrated with the timeline as many believe the strongest path to justice is via constitutional amendment.

“Had it not been for that misstep by the Wolf administration, we would not be in this predicament.”

She reiterated Ward’s concerns that legislative action on the issue would not pass muster with the Pennsylvania constitution. She added that the General Assembly has restarted the constitutional amendment process and specified all victims from public and private institutions would have access to the special window of opportunity for lawsuits.

That would require the Legislature to pass the bill again in its next session before the amendment could be put to a referendum. But she said that is the best route to ensure it finally becomes law.

“Steps have been taken to help advance victims of childhood sexual abuse, and any calls suggesting we are delaying justice are simply false and an injustice to the collective purpose we are all working towards,” Clayton Wright said.

Hamilton dismissed Ward’s objections.

“This is a classic battle in states that have large Catholic populations,” she said. “In New York, it took us 16 years, and I’ve been working on this in Pennsylvania since 2005. But the tide is turning in places where you wouldn’t expect it.

“This year Louisiana passed a window, Arkansas passed a window and we have a window open in North Carolina.”

Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, derdley@triblive.com or via Twitter .