September 20, 2021
By Jan Murphy
Victims of child sex abuse and their advocates said they have waited long enough to see Pennsylvania create a two-year window for child sex abuse survivors to take their abusers to court.
A crowd of more than 50 people holding signs that carried messages such as “Justice for Survivors” and “Why are we still here” converged on the state Capitol steps in Harrisburg on Monday. They implored the state Senate to vote on a bill that has already passed the state House of Representatives.
Kathyrn Robb, executive director of CHILD USAdvocacy and a child sex abuse survivor, opened the rally with an impassioned speech.
“We have had enough. We are not going away, not today, not tomorrow, not until this legislation is passed and not until survivors in Pennsylvania have been heard, have accountability, true healing and an opportunity for justice,” Robb said.
“Most importantly, we are not going away until that chamber passed that bill and exposes hidden predators because that’s what that bill does,” Robb said.
The statute of limitations reform legislation – House Bill 951 – is viewed by the child sex abuse survivors and advocates as their quickest opportunity for child sex abuse survivors, regardless of when the abuse happened, to hold their perpetrators accountable in court.
It would open a two-year retroactive window for time-barred victims to file civil lawsuits against predators or the institutions, both public and private, that ignored their abuse. The measure would allow victims to go to court even if they are years or decades beyond the statutes of limitations.
It is the last of four recommendations that came out of a 2018 grand jury report detailing findings of a two-year probe into clergy sex abuse and massive cover-up within six Pennsylvania dioceses of the Roman Catholic Church.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who impaneled that grand jury, said at the rally, survivors showed courage in telling their stories of abuse to the 23 grand jurors. The impact of their testimony led to prosecutors in 20 other states to launch an investigation modeled after the one his office led.
“Yet still in Pennsylvania today, someone who was abused particularly in an institutional setting still cannot confront their abuser in court,” Shapiro told the crowd. “And the reason for that is because of some politicians in this building behind me who can’t summon even a bit of the type of courage that these brave survivors have shown for years.”
He and others pointed the finger of blame particularly at leaders of the Senate Republican majority for the hold-up on action.
Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland County, responded to his complaints during a conference call on Monday with reporters. She said constitutional questions remain about how a retroactive window can be opened on this single issue.
“These people were granted protections under the constitution even though they’re slimeballs, okay, people who do that to kids are terrible human beings, and like it or not, they still have the rights afforded them,” Ward said.
The strongest path that victims have to get their day in court is with a constitutional amendment, she said. One was set to go on the ballot last spring for voter ratification but a blunder by the Department of State prevented that from happening.
That sent the proposed constitutional amendment back to square one in the lengthy amendment process. Lawmakers must pass measures to amend the state constitution in two consecutive sessions and then the amendment can go to voters for final approval.
Now, the earliest the voters would see the amendment on the ballot for child sex abuse survivors to get the opportunity for justice they seek is 2023.
Ward said the Senate, which supported the constitutional change to allow a retroactive window to open for child sexual abuse survivors, is blamed for the hold up when the Wolf Administration is the one who dropped the ball.
At their rally, Marci Hamilton, founder and CEO of Child USA, said 18 states passed bills to create retroactive windows since 2005, when the first retroactive window bill in Pennsylvania was introduced. The first measure to create a temporary window came in response to a Philadelphia grand jury report accusing Catholic clergy of a cover-up of a child sex abuse scandal.
Ward responded to that claim, saying the other states didn’t have the same constitutional constraints as Pennsylvania or have as sweeping of a retroactivity bill as the one awaiting action in the Senate.
“Some of these states said you can only sue an individual and not an entity. Some of these states said that the individual had to be alive. You couldn’t just go make an accusation and sue somebody. Some of the states said you had to be a minor,” Ward said. “The bill as it sits is extremely broad.”
Shapiro, nevertheless, accused the Senate Republican leaders of being “pathetically weak” for not standing up to insurance company lobbyists acting “on behalf of the church to keep things silent.”
“The survivors did their job. The grand jurors did their job,” he said. “It’s time for the Senate to do their job and stand up and create a window for justice right now.”
Jan Murphy may be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @JanMurphy.