HARRISBURG — A Wednesday hearing will give adult survivors of child sex abuse their first chance in years to publicly confront members of the Senate and call for action on legislation that would open a window for civil lawsuits in cases where the existing statute of limitations has expired.
The judiciary committee is expected to hear testimony from a small number of adult survivors, as well as from the state’s Victim Advocate, and other testifiers. The committee has not disclosed the slate of witnesses expected to appear at the hearing. But Pennsylvania’s Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm said she is scheduled to appear and she invited victims to contact her office to provide input to her testimony.
Storm said she has been contacted by more than 35 victims. The group of victims was “highly diverse,” she said, and includes not just victims of priest abuse, but also those victimized by ministers from other denominations and faiths, scouting organizations, school teachers and relatives.
“Overwhelmingly, they all support the abolishment of the statute of limitations and many also the mentioned the two-year window” to file lawsuits in cases beyond the existing statute of limitations, Storm said.
Under current Pennsylvania law, adult victims have to file a lawsuit before they turn 30. Advocates have argued that this is inadequate because most survivors don’t feel capable of coming forward to seek justice until later in adulthood.
A grand jury report released in 2018 found that Catholic leaders in six dioceses — Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton — had covered up the abuse of 300 priests. The grand jury noted that almost none of the victims can sue based on the report’s findings because of the statute of limitations. As a result, one of the key findings attached to the grand jury’s report was that the state law should be changed to allow for such lawsuits.
Victims and their supporters have been lobbying for years to get the state to change the law to allow adult survivors to sue the Catholic church and other organizations that covered up for child sex predators. The 2018 grand jury report — which noted that almost none of the victims identified in the grand jury’s investigation are in a position to sue due to the statute of limitations — recommended the law be changed and dramatically increased public scrutiny of the issue.
Mary McHale, an adult survivor of priest abuse from Reading, said she is scheduled to testify. McHale said she was told that there is also going to be testimony from victims of other adults, in addition to the victims of priests.
McHale said she’s not convinced that the hearing will lead to a breakthrough.
“I think it may be a show,” she said. “I still need to stand up and do the right thing.”
As the debate over how to compensate victims has intensified, most of the Catholic dioceses in the state rolled out compensation funds to settle claims with victims. That includes the Allentown Diocese, where McHale lives. She’s declined to seek compensation through the fund.
Part of the reason she’s been reluctant to take part in the compensation fund process is that victims know that other church members claim that many victims are driven by financial interest.
McHale said she only publicly revealed her abuse after learning that the priest that victimized her had targeted others, as well.
Rather than settle with the church for a financial payment, she hopes a civil window would allow her the opportunity to get church leaders to publicly acknowledge what happened to her and the others.
Gov. Tom Wolf has also called on the General Assembly to send him legislation to do just that, but thus far, all bills aimed at reforming the statute of limitations have stalled.
In a statement provided earlier this month, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne County said the hearing is intended to “bridge the philosophical and policy differences” that have hamstrung efforts to change the law previously.
She said the hearing will include “a range of perspectives.”
The effort to change the statute of limitations has been opposed by the bishops of the Catholic dioceses in the state. Al Gnoza, a spokesman for the bishops’ lobbying group, The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, declined to say Friday whether the church would have representatives testifying before the committee.