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The history of statute of limitations reform in Pennsylvania

HARRISBURG, PA. — There have been mounting concerns over child sexual abuse within certain institutions in Pennsylvania, particularly the Catholic Diocese...

HARRISBURG, PA. — There have been mounting concerns over child sexual abuse within certain institutions in Pennsylvania, particularly the Catholic Dioceses, going back several years. Because of this, victims and victim advocates have been calling for changes to state law so those victims can pursue justice against their abusers. The vast majority of those victims cannot pursue criminal or civil charges, because of the state’s statute of limitations. The push to reform the state’s statute of limitations for victims of child sexual abuse began following multiple investigative reports detailing abuse by clergymen.

The first investigation began in September of 2001  when a grand jury began investigating allegations of child sexual abuse by clergymen in the Philadelphia Archdiocese. Members of that grand jury expected to hear testimony about a series of isolated incidents spanning several decades, and the Philadelphia Archdiocese had released a statement saying it had “received credible allegations of child sexual abuse against a total of thirty·five priests,” according to court documents submitted in September 2003.

13 years later, on March 1st, 2016, another grand jury reported on its investigation into Clergy sexual abuse in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese. Like the report in Philadelphia, this one detailed alleged abuse by predator priests going as far back as 1955.

Details in those reports not only showed abuse, but also cover ups by the dioceses. Pennsylvania’s Statute of limitations for child sex abuse victims does not allow accusers sue their alleged abusers or the institutions that covered up the alleged abuse. Under current law, someone who was sexually-abused before their 18th birthday has until age 30 to file a civil lawsuit against their abuser. If they want to press criminal charges, they have until age 50 to do so.

On January 30th, 2017, Pennsylvania state Sen. Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, introduced Senate Bill 261. It would have provided a 2-year window of opportunity for people who were older than the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse to file civil and criminal lawsuits against their abusers.

The following month, State Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks County, introduced House Bill 612 on February 21, 2017. It would eliminate the statute for when a victim can sue their abuser. Rep. Rozzi, a victim of child sexual abuse himself, rallied with other victims over the following year to encourage state lawmakers to pass his bill.

On August, 14th, 2018, The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office released a redacted and highly anticipated grand jury report detailing hundreds of predator priests sexually-abusing more than 1,000 children at the Catholic Dioceses around the state. Some of the incidents went as far back as the 1940s, and some of the priests named in the report were already dead. Like the reports released in the years prior, the grand jury noted there were multiple cover ups by the Catholic Church. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro even said The Vatican “had knowledge of the cover-up”  during an interview with NBC’s Today.

The grand jury report also highlights how the Diocese of Harrisburg handed over physical evidence of child sexual abuse to the York County District Attorney’s Office in 1995. Among the evidence were items like photo negatives and video cassettes of child abuse involving Reverend Herbert Shank. He’s accused of molesting young boys and photographing them half naked for over a decade, some of the abuse dating back to the early 1970’s.

The York County District Attorney’s Office released a statement on August 22nd, 2018, saying the evidence mentioned in the report had been destroyed. No charges were ever filed against Shank.

The report recommended the Pennsylvania Legislature pass the statute of limitations reform for child sex abuse victims as mentioned earlier. It came to a climax on October 17th that year, when the state senate had the chance to vote on Senate Bill 261, but chose not to. The senators opposing the bill were concerned about the retroactive window for civil lawsuits against institutions like the Catholic Church, and questions over whether or not it was constitutional.

It should be noted, however, the Catholic Church spent $10.6 million lobbying in northeast states since 2011. More than $5.3 million was spent in Pennsylvania, from 2011 to 2018, to influence the votes of lawmakers on a number of issues, including civil justice, crime victim assistance, criminal justice, courts, and liability reform, according to a special investigation by FOX43 Reveals.

Records from the PA Department of State verify those numbers and found the Church’s lobbying expenses jumped from $529,272 in 2011 to $786,844 in 2012 following the release of a 2011 Philadelphia Grand Jury report on clergy sexual abuse.

In 2018, The Archdiocese of Philadelphia single-handedly spent $291,674 on lobbying firms between October and December, right after the release of the most recent grand jury report, which identified 301 “predator priests” in six diocese who were alleged to have abused more than 1,000 children. Between January and March in 2019, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia doled out another $138,972 to lobbying firms.

Today, four new reform bills are pending in the state legislature. One could become a ballot question for voters to decide.

House Bill 962 would raise the age a child sex abuse survivor can seek damages in the form of a civil lawsuit from 30 to 55.

House Bill 963 would change the Pennsylvania Constitution to allow the 2-year window for sexual abuse survivors to sue their abusers or the abuser’s organization. The bill would need to be approved by the state house and senate. Then, it will need to be passed by both chambers again over the next two legislative sessions. So, If the bill passes this week, it will need to pass again in the 2021-22 session. Afterwards, it would become a question on the ballot for voters to decide on.

House Bill 1171 clarifies confidentiality agreements that no past or future agreements can prohibit victims to speak with law enforcement.

House Bill 1051 increases penalties for those who fail to report child sex abuse.

Earlier today, those bills unanimously passed their respective committees and are headed to the state senate for a full vote.  All of those bills are expected to pass, and votes could happen later this week.