Pa. laws keep victims silent, child sex abuse survivors say

The Pa. senate held a daylong hearing on overhauling the statute of limitations for some abuse cases. They’ve stalled before, and it’s unclear if anything has changed.

Carolyn Fortney, a survivor of sexual abuse at the hands of her family's Roman Catholic parish priest as a child, awaits legislation in the Pennsylvania Capitol to respond to a landmark state grand jury report on child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018 in Harrisburg, Pa. (Marc Levy/AP Photo)

Carolyn Fortney, a survivor of sexual abuse at the hands of her family's Roman Catholic parish priest as a child, awaits legislation in the Pennsylvania Capitol to respond to a landmark state grand jury report on child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018 in Harrisburg, Pa. (Marc Levy/AP Photo)

After hours of sometimes-tearful testimony from panels that included legal experts, representatives of the Catholic Church and insurance industry, and people who were sexually abused as children, it remains unclear whether the state Senate will agree to change the rules governing child sex abuse cases.

The Judiciary Committee held a hearing Wednesday on long-stalled proposals to extend, and in some cases abolish, the statutes of limitations in those cases.

The effort to change Pennsylvania’s child sex abuse laws is closely tied with — but not limited to — decades of child abuse and coverups in the commonwealth’s eight Roman Catholic dioceses.

Much of that abuse was detailed in a redacted grand jury report the attorney general released last summer.

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While Senate Republicans ran this week’s Judiciary Committee hearing, they’re also responsible for ensuring the overhaul bills have never passed.

Child abuse survivors and advocates want lawmakers to end the criminal statute of limitations on future cases, loosen age limits for civil suits, and open a two-year window for retroactive suits on old cases.

Sarah Goetz, a victim advocate who said she was able to sue her two abusers only because she “hurried up and healed,” said facing them in court meant “more to me than any dollar amount that you could possibly put on it.”

Through tears, she told the Senate panel not to turn a “blind eye” to victims who can’t heal quickly enough to sue under Pennsylvania statute. Current law ends the civil window for a child sex abuse claim when the victim is 30. The criminal statute of limitations is capped at age 50.

“Please do not just sit here and pretend to do a job,” Goetz said. “Do it. Please, please.”

Senate Democrats and the entire House support the full package to broaden statutes going forward and open a window for retroactive suits, as do Governor Tom Wolf and Attorney General Josh Shapiro, both Democrats.

Senate Republicans have balked at retroactive suits, saying legal action on old cases might be unconstitutional and could bankrupt churches.

Those arguments were among the ones opponents of a retroactivity clause made during the Senate’s hearing.

Insurance industry experts also expressed concern that any retroactive liability introduces a risk for which insurers haven’t calculated and haven’t charged a premium.

GOP leaders didn’t comment after the hearing. Lisa Baker, the Luzerne County Republican who chairs the Judiciary Committee, excused herself after concluding testimony, saying she needed to reflect on what she’d heard.

Senator Larry Farnese, a Philadelphia Democrat, said a court may rule that allowing lawsuits on old cases is unconstitutional.

Past state courts have interpreted the constitution’s remedies clause to mean that it’s illegal to retroactively change statutes of limitations to allow action after cases have expired. Some legal scholars think those precedents would hold water in abuse suits.

Farnese said no matter the legal interpretation, he thinks constitutionality is an unconvincing argument for letting the matter die without a Senate vote.

“Being on this committee, being in this chamber, I have seen us pass legislation out of here which we have known has been unconstitutional,” he said. “We should be able to pass something out of here [and] let the courts worry about whether it’s constitutional.”

Farnese said the argument that retroactive suits might bankrupt churches isn’t compelling either.

“When that type of conduct has come to light and there is evidence…I’m not surprised that people stop supporting and donating to those types of organizations,” he said. “It’s a natural consequence.”

After observing the day’s proceedings from the audience, House member Mark Rozzi said he hopes Senate Republicans will come to a compromise with the rest of the legislature.

Rozzi, a Democrat from Berks County, says he was abused by a priest as a teenager. He has spent the bulk of his six-year House tenure trying to change statute of limitations laws to make it easier for abuse victims to sue.

For the past two sessions, that meant putting the two major components—the civil and criminal statutory changes and the retroactive suit window—into one piece of legislation.

“It went nowhere,” Rozzi said. “And I was reminded at the beginning of this session that if we went with the same approach, that it was also dead on arrival.”

Rozzi’s new approach has two parts.

He’s sponsoring a bill — which has already passed the state House—that would get rid of the criminal statute of limitations for future child abuse cases and extend the statute for civil suits. Among other things, it would also hold institutions responsible if they knew about abuse but failed to stop it.

It doesn’t include the two-year retroactive window, though. Blair County Republican Jim Gregory is sponsoring that part, and it’s now a constitutional amendment that would explicitly allow victims two years to file lawsuits on old abuse cases.

This approach hasn’t gone over smoothly with everyone.

Rozzi said many of his fellow child sexual abuse victims, with whom he has worked closely over the years, don’t support his plan to split up his bill.

“I think they just don’t understand the process here in Harrisburg,” he said.

Some advocates have shifted their support to alternative bills, like one sponsored by — among others — Chester County’s Tim Kearney and Berks County’s Katie Muth, both Democrats who joined the Senate last year. It would keep the two main components of the bill together, as one piece of legislation.

“Their bill won’t move,” Rozzi said. “I can tell you that right now. Kearney’s bill, Muth’s bill, none of those bills are going to move in the Senate. If they don’t move my bill, I would expect a Republican leader…maybe to create new legislation and move it.”

Rozzi said he’s been having regular talks with GOP Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, who has played a key role in blocking bills on the issue.

“I think he still believes it is unconstitutional because of the remedies clause,” he said.

A spokeswoman for Scarnati didn’t return a request for comment.

Pennsylvania isn’t alone in its protracted debate over changing the statute of limitations.

Forty-four states and Washington D.C. no longer have any criminal statute of limitations for child sexual abuse cases, and 10 have gotten rid of their civil limitations as well, according to think tank Child USA.

The think tank says sixteen states and D.C. have also opened windows for retroactive suits. Seven windows are opening this year.

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