(Nov. 27, 2019) Some 15 months after the state of Pennsylvania released a grand jury report implicating more than 300 priests in the sexual abuse of more than 1,000 minors, the state has changed some of its sex abuse laws to aid survivors. The Associated Press reported today that Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf just signed a bill that gives future victims of child sex abuse more time to file lawsuits. The bill also ends time limits for police to file criminal charges.
The Pennsylvania grand jury report galvanized nationwide support for survivors and inspired several states to change their laws, while other states began similar investigations.
Faults in the Justice System
The legislative package was based on recommendations in the 2018 report that examined six of eight Pennsylvania dioceses.
Gov. Wolf said the new laws will help repair “faults in our justice system that prevent frightened, abused children from seeking justice when they grow into courageous adults.”
The governor also signed bills to invalidate secrecy agreements that have kept child sex abuse victims from speaking with investigators. The new laws also increases penalties for anyone required to report suspected abuse who fails to do so.
Survivors’ Fight Continues for Retro Window
Child sex abuse survivors’ in Pennsylvania, however, must still fight for a retroactive window in in their state. Pennsylvania still lacks legislation like that passed in New York, New Jersey, California, and elsewhere that gives survivors who were abused at any time in years past a chance to file a civil lawsuit today.
Pennsylvania has been slower to act than many other states, even though the state was ground zero for the nation’s renewed focus on the problems of child sex abuse at the hands of Catholic priests. The state’s grand jury report published in August 2018 prompted a lengthy battle in the state legislature. On one side were victims and their advocates who sought a two-year window to file claims over past abuse; on the other side were Republican leaders in the state senate. The latter argued that changing the law to help sex abuse survivors now would be unconstitutional. The Republicans, instead, proposed the slower, and much more uncertain, process of amending the state constitution.
Survivors Lament Pennsylvania Legislature’s Laxity
That proposal began a multi-year amendment process. Now the newly proposed bill must again pass both the House and Senate in the 2021-22 legislative session. If it passes both legislative bodies again, voters would then decide its fate in a statewide referendum.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro said the eliminated time limits meant prosecutors could file charges against only two priests after the report was issued. If the new legislation had applied, he said 100 priests or more could have been charged. More than 100 named in the 2018 report had already died, with most of the credibly accused committing their crimes from 1970-2000.
Gov. Wolf and AG Shapiro urged lawmakers to take up legislation to allow the two-year window for lawsuits rather than to wait for the amendment process to play laboriously out, along with its uncertain conclusion.
Justice Delayed is Justice Denied
“By waiting, we are robbing the very victims who made this day possible,” said Mr. Shapiro. “We are robbing them of the only closure before them.”