Pennsylvania enacted legislation Tuesday to give future victims of child sexual abuse more time to file lawsuits and to end time limits for police to file criminal charges.
Gov. Tom Wolf signed new laws he said will help repair “faults in our justice system that prevent frightened, abused children from seeking justice when they grow into courageous adults.”
The legislative package was based on recommendations in last year’s landmark grand jury report about the cover-up of hundreds of cases of child sexual abuse in six of Pennsylvania’s eight Roman Catholic dioceses over much of the 20th century.
However, Republicans with majority control of the state Senate blocked the two-year window, which was a top priority of victim advocates, victims and state Attorney General Josh Shapiro.
They all want the state to temporarily lift time limits that currently bar now-adult victims of child sexual abuse from suing their perpetrators and institutions that may have helped hide it.
About two dozen states have changed their laws on statutes of limitations this year, according to Child USA, a Philadelphia-based think tank that advocates for child protection.
Wolf, a Democrat, signed bills to invalidate secrecy agreements that keep child sexual abuse victims from talking to investigators, and to increase and clarify penalties for people who are required to report suspected child abuse but fail to do so.
Wolf signed the bills at Muhlenberg High School in Reading, the home district of state Democratic Rep. Mark Rozzi, a champion of the legislation and who has spoken publicly about being raped as a 13-year-old boy by a Roman Catholic priest.
“We know our work is not done today, it’s going to continue,” Rozzi said.
The grand jury report prompted a lengthy battle in the Legislature that pitted victims and their advocates who sought the two-year window to file claims over past abuse against top Senate Republicans, who argued it would be unconstitutional and instead offered the slower alternative of amending the state constitution.
The multi-year amendment process has begun, but the bill must again pass both the House and Senate in the 2021-22 legislative session before voters will decide its fate.
Shapiro, a Democrat, said the eliminated time limits means prosecutors could file charges against only two priests after the report was issued. Shapiro said that if the new legislation had applied, some 100 priests could have been charged.
Wolf and Shapiro urged lawmakers to take up the two-year window for lawsuits rather than wait for the constitutional amendment process to play out.
“By waiting, we are robbing the very victims who made this day possible, we are robbing them of the only closure before them,” Shapiro said. “Think about the many Pennsylvanians who have a story to tell about sexual abuse. Why should anyone who’s been a victim of sexual abuse or its cover-up be made to suffer while others get three or four more years of a free pass?”
The main bill in the legislative package ends any statute of limitations, in future cases, for criminal prosecution of major child sexual abuse crimes. Current law limits it to the victim’s 50th birthday.
Victims would have until they turn 55 to sue, compared to age 30 in current law. Young adults ages 18-23 would have until age 30 to sue, where existing law gives them just two years.
Police could file criminal charges up to 20 years after the crime when young adults 18-23 years old are the victims, as opposed to 12 years after the crime for victims over 17 in current law.
Other state have previously amended their laws.
In New Jersey, lawmakers expanded the civil statute of limitations from two years to seven years. The bill opened a two-year window, which starts on Dec. 1, to victims who were previously barred by the statute of limitations. It also allows victims to seek damages from institutions.
New York raised the victim’s age for which prosecutors can seek a felony indictment from 23 to 28. The law also gave anyone a year starting in August to file child sex abuse lawsuits against individuals and institutions, and civil lawsuits going forward can be filed until the victim is 55, up from 23.