More than 20 states have reformed their statutes of limitations for childhood abuse, but Pa. still hasn’t. Here’s what you need to know

Philadelphia Inquirer [Philadelphia PA]

July 13, 2023

By DaniRae Renno

Child abuse survivors say they’ve been led on for years by Pennsylvania’s top officials, including Gov. Josh Shapiro. But advocates still hope stalled efforts will move forward.

In the nearly five years since a bombshell grand jury report found thousands of children were sexually abused at the hands of Roman Catholic clergy in Pennsylvania, more than 20 states have passed legislation making it easier for victims to pursue civil action against their abusers and the institutions that protected them.

In Pennsylvania, however, efforts to create a two-year window for victims to file civil lawsuits based on decades-old allegations have repeatedly failed.

“How embarrassing is this building,” said Rep. Mark Rozzi (D., Berks), a childhood clergy abuse survivor, from his Capitol office last month. “We can’t even pass a bill that would give victims their day in court and expose perpetrators who are out there raping children.”

Child abuse survivors say they’ve been led on for years by Pennsylvania’s top officials — including by Gov. Josh Shapiro, who released the grand jury report as attorney general, and the top Senate Republican, after efforts to pass legislation earlier this year came to a halt amid political wrangling over unrelated partisan issues.

“The tragedy of the Pennsylvania legislature is they are a state that has done the most grand jury reports on child sexual assault in the entire country, so they are the most knowledgeable,” said Marci Hamilton, founder of CHILD USA and expert on clergy sex abuse statutes. “What they have done is teased victims with the possibility and then failed because of politics.”

Shapiro, who drew national attention for releasing the report in 2018, called the issue “crucial” in a news conference last week and noted that it’s just one of his top priorities that haven’t yet been accomplished. His office declined to comment further.

What is the current status of legislation in Pennsylvania?

In 2019, the Pennsylvania legislature removed the criminal statute of limitations for child sexual assault and extended the window for victims to file a civil suit until age 55. But efforts to create a two-year suspension of the statute of limitations to allow older victims to file civil suits have stalled.

The GOP-controlled state Senate earlier this year advanced a package of constitutional amendments, including one to create a two-year window for those civil lawsuits. The bill, Senate Bill 1, also included two unrelated amendments that Democrats oppose: one to require voter IDs and another to give the legislature a say over more regulations. The House, where Democrats hold a one-seat majority, stripped the other amendments and sent it back to the state Senate with only the statute of limitations amendment. Republican leaders say it will sit untouched.

“I made it very clear that they would be best served to pass Senate Bill 1 as we presented it to them,” Senate Majority Leader Sen. Joe Pittman told reporters in June. “They didn’t do that. I wish they would have taken my advice.”

The Catholic Church and insurance companies have long opposed changes to statutes of limitations that could lead to a flood of costly lawsuits. Opponents also argue that the measures upend a basic tenet of the American legal system that relies on statutes of limitations to protect defendants from claims that are too old to defend because of fading memories and unavailable witnesses.

Rozzi, who was House speaker when the House amended and passed that bill, said Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward was “going back on her word” after had reached an agreement with former Gov. Tom Wolf.

A spokesperson for Ward did not respond to requests for comment.

Shaun Dougherty, who leads the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests and is a survivor of clergy sex abuse, said the back-and-forth between lawmakers is exhausting and harmful to survivors.

“I’ve been fielding non-stop calls from survivors that are triggered once again, because yet another year has gone by and they are ignored,” Dougherty said. “They aren’t listened to, their stories aren’t valued and that’s a very hard road to walk on as a survivor.”

What action have other states taken?

Seventeen states have entirely removed the statute of limitations for civil cases of child sexual abuse, according to CHILD USA, a nonprofit dedicated to ending child abuse.

California was the first to enact window legislation after a 2002 Boston Globe investigation uncovered child sex abuse by Catholic clergy.

In 2018, Michigan created a 90-day window for victims of Larry Nassar, a former USA gymnastics doctor convicted of child sexual abuse.

When New York opened a one-year window for survivors of child sex abuse to file lawsuits in 2019, courts there were inundated with more than 400 new lawsuits on the first day and the Diocese of Rochester later declared bankruptcy. New Jersey also opened a two-year window for lawsuits in late 2019.

Other states have reformed their statutes of limitations by removing or increasing age caps, which Pennsylvania has also done.

What comes next for Pennsylvania?

Advocates for victim relief in Pennsylvania say the ball’s in Shapiro’s court.

“I keep hearing from the governor that this is his top priority,” Rozzi said. “If this is truly his top priority, he will get it done during budget negotiations.”

Pennsylvania is currently in a budget standoff. A budget deal could eventually include policy changes unrelated to state spending, such as a promise to vote on the statute of limitations reform.

The budget controversy centers on a school voucher program to help children from low-performing districts to attend private schools.

“To even consider passing school vouchers without first passing the retroactive window for childhood sex abuse survivors is reckless behavior from sworn legislators,” Dougherty said. “It’s the less advantaged children that get preyed upon in private schools.”

Rozzi said he hasn’t had any communication from the governor and House leadership about the future of his amendment.

Hamilton acknowledged lawmakers have a lot on their plate, including a court-ordered fix of public school funding.

Even if the window isn’t part of budget negotiations, she believes Pennsylvania survivors will get justice soon.

“I am still hopeful and optimistic that we’ll see a window on the November ballot,” Hamilton said last week. “Negotiations for the year are not over, and I have every expectation that the governor will bring back the legislature into session and that this bill will be on the table.”

DaniRae Renno is an intern with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents’ Association.