PENNSYLVANIA, USA — Immediately as a group of child sex abuse survivors and their families sat down with FOX43, they made it clear that they did not want to focus solely on their stories of trauma or their tears. Their focus is to send a message to Pennsylvania lawmakers who continue to not act on a bill that they claim would protect children and expose predators.
"Their job is to get that bill out and get it voted on," sex abuse survivor and victim advocate Heather Hogan-Spencer said as other survivors called the debate over the bill "political football."
House Bill 951 would extend the statute of limitations for child sex abuse victims by two years to allow survivors a greater time period in which to take their alleged abusers to court. Despite passage in both House and Senate committees, the bill has still not been brought to the floor of the Senate for a vote by Republican Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, who has expressed concern that the measure may be unconstitutional.
"How many people are going to self medicate? How many people are going to die? How many people are going to commit suicide because this is drug out again and again?" Michael McIlmail said as he wept by Debbie McIlmail while holding pictures of their son Sean. They said Sean was a victim of child sex abuse and died due to an overdose. The family later sued and settled a case against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
The statute of limitations extension that would aid child sex abuse survivors was originally supposed to be passed as a constitutional amendment. But, the effort was botched when the state failed to advertise the measure properly by law. Soon after, then Pa. Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar resigned and so did her legislative director, although no one was fired.
Survivors would now have to wait years to try to pass the measure through as an amendment again whereas a bill could be passed immediately by state leaders with enough votes. At one point, the survivors went to Sen. Ward's office to speak to her directly about bringing the bill to the floor for a vote.
"What I said was, 'We're not here to speak and we're not here to listen to you because we are surely done with that. Now what we want to know is are you running HB951 or not? And, it's a yes or no answer.' And, her response was 'I'm going to tell you what I'm going to do.' And as soon as she said that I said 'I'm asking you for a yes or no answer.' And she started speaking again and I looked at everybody and I said 'We're done.' And we got up and walked out," Hogan-Spencer, whom was among the people who went to Ward's office, said.
FOX43 made multiple attempts to interview Senator Ward about all of the survivors claims and to answer why the bill is not being brought up for a vote in the Senate. But, her office refused to provide a comment outside of several email exchanges with her communications director who wrote in part, "Sen. Ward will not be sitting down for an interview nor will we be providing a statement."
The office once again cited concerns that the bill, if passed, could face legal challenges because it is not being approved as a constitutional amendment. The office also claimed lawmakers have a responsibility to ensure they're upholding the Pennsylvania constitution to give survivors their best path to justice.
The emails add Ward's office hasn't been provided case law on the bill from Pa. Attorney General Josh Shapiro, although Shapiro's office claims they have. Ward's office, meantime, claims the AG only provided them with a fact sheet from Child USA, an advocacy group.
In an email, Sen. Ward's communications director Erica Clayton Wright wrote in part, "Sen. Ward does not need to defend a position that is clearly stated in the law, which is precisely why the Attorney General’s input is relevant. He is our Commonwealth’s top defense attorney. If he were defending this case, what is the case? Help us by providing the law, don’t point to news articles and advocacy group fact sheets."
FOX43 reached out to the office of the Pa. Attorney General for a response who said there have been meetings between their office and the leader's office. They also claim an internal memo was shared with the Senator and her staff earlier this year to address her questions and the constitutionality of the measure in Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile, as the survivors wish for action from Sen. Ward and other Republicans on the bill, they also criticize Democrats in the Senate whom they believe could be doing more to get the bill passed.
"We've been getting lip service from both sides," Hogan Spencer said. "I don't know how protecting children from predators became a partisan issue."
For Jandy Rivera, Taylor Ecker, Brooke Rush, and Mary McHale, who were among the survivors who sat down to speak to FOX43, they wish for the finger pointing to end and for real action to begin.
Many of them also accused lawmakers of catering to lobbyists. They added lawmakers should not be concerned about debating the constitutional legality of HB951 because that is not their job, rather it is the Pa. Supreme Court's job to decide legal matters.
"So what? Kids lives are at stake. Fix it now. Stop spending all this time talking about the screw up and the constitutional amendment," Rush said.
The survivors claim two more years in the statute of limitations would be a game-changer for victims who have not been able to hold their predators more accountable.
"The man who abused me, who is free five minutes from where we’re sitting right now, would not be walking the streets in my hometown, living across from a daycare center. Two more years would give him exposure...and name him as the monster he is," Mary McHale, who was among the survivors identified by the Pennsylvania Grand Jury on Catholic clergy sex abuse, said.
"The system is broken," Ecker said. "Society is broken. And that's the narrative here and yet we fight on."
All of the survivors remained adamant that they will not stop fighting to pass HB951. However, they acknowledged their efforts to sway lawmakers have not resulted in the movement they would like to see on the bill, so they hope by reaching out to the public, that more people will join their fight.
"Instead of going up to Harrisburg and banging our head against the wall, we need to talk to the people," McHale said. "People have no idea what goes on up there."
"We're going to fight until it's passed," Michael McIlmail said. "We're not going away. There's no end to the fight. In the meantime, there will be more victims though. More people will die."
Survivors speak to anyone who may be experiencing sexual abuse: