Child sexual abuse lawsuit ‘window’ in Pa. moves near referendum

The Pennsylvania state Capitol

The Pennsylvania state Capitol is seen in this file photo. (Tom Downing/WITF)

The state House has given final approval to a proposal to change the Pennsylvania constitution to give alleged victims of child sexual abuse a retroactive two-year “window” in which to file civil lawsuits no matter how long ago the alleged abuse occurred.

State representatives voted 187 to 15 Wednesday for the constitutional amendment, giving it approval in the second consecutive legislative session, as required. If the state Senate follows suit, the proposal could be on the election ballot for approval by voters in the May 18 primary.

Alleged victims of child sexual abuse in Pennsylvania have long faced short time limits to file civil claims. A 2019 state law gave future victims of child sexual abuse more time to file lawsuits and ended time limits for police to file criminal charges.

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A series of grand jury investigations has identified hundreds of Roman Catholic priests and more than 1,000 victims of such abuse over many decades and accused church bishops and other leaders of helping cover it up. Pennsylvania dioceses have set up compensation funds and settled claims with hundreds of victims in recent years.

Supporters call the constitutional amendment an overdue measure to hold accountable those who prey on children, and they argue that lawsuits can recover more damages than settlements.

Opponents warn of damage to churches and institutions even as many of the actual perpetrators are dead or broke. They also argue that statutes of limitations provide important legal protections, and changing them retrospectively can leave litigants without the evidence they need to defend themselves.

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