HARRISBURG – The Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday unanimously approved a proposal to ask voters whether to amend the Constitution to open a two-year window for adult survivors of child abuse to sue even if their cases are beyond the existing statute of limitations.
The committee also approved legislation that would increase the statute of limitations moving forward – by giving victims until the age of 55 to file lawsuits and eliminating the statute of limitations for criminal charges.
The legislation is poised for a final vote as soon as Wednesday. Even if it passes, however, it sets up another waiting game because the proposed constitutional amendment must be approved by the Legislature again, no sooner than 2021, before it goes before voters.
That has advocates for survivors of childhood sex abuse divided.
“A two-year wait for a two-year window is justice delayed,” said Jennifer Storm, Pennsylvania Victim Advocate.
But as the committee voted, Storm said that any progress was welcome, and that the proposal to amend the state Constitution would overcome concerns from lawmakers about whether a retroactive window for lawsuits would be constitutional.
The proposal to change the Constitution to allow for the two-year window for lawsuits is in House Bill 963. The changes to the statute of limitations moving forward are in House Bill 962.
Both measures passed the state House in April.
An effort to open a window without changing the Constitution failed last year when the state Senate wouldn’t act on the measure, citing those concerns about constitutionality.
“I believe this is the proper way to do this,” said Senate President Pro Tem Joseph Scarnati, R-Jefferson County said after the committee vote.
Scarnati said he hopes the Senate will hold a final vote on the proposal on Wednesday.
Under current law, survivors have until the age of 30 to sue if they were under the age of 18 when they were abused. Criminal charges can be sought up until the time the victim turns 50.
Advocates have argued that the existing statute of limitations fails too many victims because survivors often wait decades before they feel comfortable disclosing that they were abused as children.
The move to change the statute of limitations gained steam after a statewide grand jury disclosed that 300 Catholic priests had abused at least 1,000 children over decades and that church officials had covered up for the crimes. Almost none of the victims whose abuse was described in the grand jury report can sue due to the state’s existing statute of limitations, Attorney General Josh Shapiro said in announcing the report.
The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference had opposed efforts to allow victims to sue, but the organization announced on Friday that it was taking a neutral position on the proposal to amend the Constitution.
The fact that the lobbying arm of the Catholic Church has dropped its opposition to the proposed Constitutional amendment isn’t necessarily encouraging, said Kathryn Robb, executive director of ChildUSAdvocacy, a Philadelphia-based group that lobbies for statute of limitations reform.
Amending the Constitution requires that the Legislature pass the identical legislation twice in two consecutive sessions, before the proposal goes on the ballot for a statewide referendum.
“It is a very difficult process and countless political and legislative moves by opponents can easily throw it of track, or take it down a long dead end,” Robb said. “It’s a cruel ruse, victims of child sexual abuse will once again have justice delayed - and ultimately denied.”
The judiciary committee added a provision that allows victims of abuse to tap into state funding to cover the cost of counseling services even if they don’t sue their abuser.
Baker said the reform is necessary because many victims are abused by people who don’t have financial resources worth going after in court. Baker said that, for example, many victims are abused by other juveniles.
The change to House Bill 962 would provide up to $5,000 for mental health counseling for victims who were adults when they were assaulted, and up to $10,000 for victims who were children when they were abused.