HARRISBURG – Survivors of childhood sex abuse will have to wait at least until 2021 to see if the Legislature follows through and lets voters decide whether to amend the Constitution to help them.
Other reforms, including a change to help future victims, will take effect when Gov. Tom Wolf signs into law measures passed last week by the state House and Senate.
A spokesman for Wolf said that the governor supports the reforms and plans to sign them.
The immediate changes will provide future victims of sex abuse more time to file lawsuits or report the allegations to police.
House Bill 962 will put an end to any statute of limitations, in future cases, for the criminal prosecution of major child sexual abuse crimes. The current law limits it to the victim’s 50th birthday. Authorities will have up to 20 years to file charges in sexual abuse cases where young adults 18-23 years old are the victims, as opposed to 12 years after the crime for victims over 17 in current law.
For lawsuits, victims will have until they turn 55 to sue, as opposed to age 30 under current law, and young adults ages 18-23 will have until age 30 to use, whereas existing law gives them only two years. Governmental institutions, such as public schools, will lose immunity from lawsuits for child sexual abuse if the person suing was harmed by the negligence of the institution.
Those reforms, while welcome, do nothing to help the survivors who have been lobbying for years to the statute of limitations, or other survivors whose abuse was detailed in a series of damning grand jury reports examining cover-ups in Catholic dioceses across the state, said Kathryn Robb, executive director of Child USAdvocacy, a Philadelphia-based organization lobbying for statute of limitations reform.
“Bravo for the prospective change, we support that,” Robb said. But because the constitutional amendment process requires that the Legislature approve the same proposal a second time, no sooner than 2021, the effort to help existing victims face an “uncertain and precarious road.”
In addition to changing the statute of limitations, the Legislature also sent Wolf House Bill 1051 that calls for stiffer penalties for failing to report continuing abuse, as well as House Bill 1171, that would make it clear that victims aren’t barred from talking to police if they sign settlement agreements that include confidentiality clauses, Attorney General Josh Shapiro said.
The legislation will “fundamentally change our justice system to better protect victims and hold abusers, and those who cover up abuse, accountable under the law,” Shapiro said.
The attorney general released the 2018 grand jury report that found 300 priests had molested more than 1,000 victims across the state. That report called for the reforms now awaiting Wolf’s signature, along with the proposal to open a window to allow lawsuits in cases where the statute of limitations has expired.
Advocates and some lawmakers had argued that the window could be opened through a normal piece of legislation like the rest of the reforms, but Republicans in the Senate, in particular, expressed concern that reopening the window to allow for lawsuits when the statute of limitations is expired would be unconstitutional. As a result, they passed House Bill 963, which would open a window for lawsuits, if voters approve a statewide ballot referendum. But ballot referendums must be approved by the General Assembly in two legislative sessions, meaning it won’t happen until 2021, at the earliest.
“It’s a mixed bag of emotions,” said Mary McHale, who was assaulted by a priest in Reading. “Yes, it was more movement than we’ve seen, but our predators are still escaping with no consequences.”
She said the move to change the statute of limitations moving forward without also providing retroactive relief for existing victims has confused some survivors into thinking they stand to benefit immediately. McHale added that she worries that other survivors of abuse will struggle to make it long enough for the process to amend the Constitution to help.
“They are people hanging on by a thread,” she said.
Shaun Dougherty, a Johnstown resident, who was abused by a priest, said that the reforms awaiting the governor’s signature “are big thing, historic things.”
But advocates and victims won’t feel like their work is done until relief is offered to the existing survivors of sex abuse, he said.
Dougherty said that while waiting for 2021 to come to press for the constitutional amendment, survivors will be looking to mobilize to influence state House and Senate races in 2020, but he said no list of targeted politicians has yet been developed. Half the seats in the state Senate will be up for election next year and all House seats will be up for election.
“Until we get a retroactive window, we’re not going to let up,” he said.
While the controversy over a retroactive window drags on in Pennsylvania, states across the country have moved to offer retroactive relief to victims, Robb said.
That includes windows for lawsuits in neighboring states of New York and New Jersey, she said.
“Pennsylvania is still in the dark ages,” Robb said. “There is a clear national trend to do the right thing for victims.”