HARRISBURG – Adult survivors of child sex abuse perpetrated by former Johnstown pediatrician Johnnie “Jack” Barto came to the state capitol Wednesday to call for action on legislation that would allow victims like them to sue even if their cases are beyond the existing statute of limitations.
They joined state Sen. Katie Muth, D-Montgomery County, one of the prime sponsors of Senate Bill 540, which would just do that – by eliminating the statute of limitations for sex crimes moving forward and opening a two-year window for lawsuits in cases that are not barred by the existing statute of limitations.
Attorneys representing five victims filed a lawsuit Tuesday in Cambria County Court against Barto, Conemaugh Health System and Laurel Pediatrics, the practice where Barto saw his victims. Sarah Klein, an attorney for Dalton & Associates of Delaware and the first known survivor of abuse by former U.S Olympic gymnastic team doctor Larry Nassar, said Barto survivors in the lawsuit will remain anonymous.
Barto, who pleaded guilty in two molestation cases and entered no contest pleas in other cases, was sentenced earlier this year to 79 to 158 years in prison. He reportedly molested children who he saw as patients for decades, Klein said. But many of them can’t sue due to the state’s existing statute of limitations.
Klein said there are more than 40 other victims who have come forward but based on how long Barto was molesting children, there could be “hundreds, if not thousands” of potential victims.
Eight adult victims of Barto spoke at the Capitol event, along with Sherry Kinsey, the mother of two of Barto’s victims. Kinsey said she wore white to the event to represent the innocence of the victims stolen by Barto.
“You want to put a statute of limitations on that? It’s not right,” she said.
Brooke Rush was molested by Barto when she went to see him as a 11-year-old seeking care for appendicitis. She can’t sue because of the statute of limitations.
“My voice doesn’t matter” in court, Rush said.
She said Pennsylvania should follow the lead of other states, like New Jersey and New York “that are holding the rights of survivors in higher regards than their predators.”
Amanda Dorich said she was molested by Barto when she was treated for asthma at the age of 10.
Pennsylvania’s existing statute of limitations requires that survivors sue before the age of 30. She said the law should be changed to give victims the opportunity to decide when they are ready to come forward and seek justice.
Muth said that while clerical abuse became the focus on the controversy over reforming the statute of limitations, she sees the issue as an “abuse of power” that impacts people in a broad range of settings. While the estimates vary, she noted that clerical abuse is believed to only represent about 4-6 percent of the sex crimes against children.
“The focus should be on the victims, not on institutions,” she said.
Senate Bill 540 has been referred to the Senate judiciary committee. A proposal that has already passed the state House which opens a window for lawsuits in cases where the statute of limitations has expired, but it would open the window through a Constitutional amendment. That process requires votes in two legislative sessions.
Muth said the House proposal is the result of “cowardly negotiations” and said she hopes that when the judiciary committee considers the issue, it takes a look at Senate Bill 540 and it allows victims to testify before the committee.