Advocates hope to eliminate Pa. statute of limitations on child sex abuse civil cases

    Advocates for victims of child sexual abuse will testify in Harrisburg Monday. They hope to capitalize on outrage in the wake of the Penn State scandal to push forward stalled legislation that would change the statute of limitations for civil suits against offenders.

    Once victims in Pennsylvania turn 30, they can no longer file a civil suit. Abuse survivor and advocate Tammy Lerner said that prevents some victims from coming forward.

    “I just really want to underscore the importance of passing this legislation so that we can hold these people accountable, so that the Jerry Sanduskys of the world don’t have access to kids,” Lerner said at a news conference last week.

    Those trying to change the state’s laws on prosecuting child molesters say those laws are among the worst in the nation.

    “Pennsylvania is the most neanderthal and regressive state in the country,” said Tom Neuberger, who has been prosecuting child molestation cases in Delaware for eight years.

    Jeff Dion, director of the National Crime Victim Bar Association, said he would not put it quite like that, but said the Keystone State’s laws do not stack up very well.

    He offers some background. The statute of limitations for most injury claims is one to four years. For injuries that happen to minors, the clock starts ticking at age 18.

    Because of the unique nature of cases of child sexual abuse, most states have special rules that govern that category of crime.

    “The injury does not manifest itself until well into adulthood sometimes,” said Dion, referring to the substance abuse, depression or an inability to keep a job that sometimes plague abuse victims much later in life. “It’s sort of like being exposed to asbestos or radiation; you might get cancer 20 years later.”

    In about half the states, the statute-of-limitations clock does not start ticking until the adult connects any injury–alcoholism or depression–with previous abuse.

    Less victim-friendly, in Dion’s opinion, are the 11 states that allow civil claims within a fixed number of years from a victim’s 18th birthday, anywhere from three to 30. That’s how it works in Pennsylvania, where victims have until they turn 30 to file a lawsuit.

    Now, though, some lawmakers want Pennsylvania to be the fifth state to eliminate statutes of limitations altogether. A separate bill would institute a two-year window in which anyone, no matter how old the abuse, could file a claim. Delaware enacted such a window from 2007 to 2009.

    “There were just over 200 lawsuits filed as a result of (the Delaware) legislation,” Dion said, “but one of the benefits was that it exposed perpetrators that were previously unidentified.”

    Advocates in Pennsylvania are hoping outrage from the Penn State scandal will help their cause, but Wilmington attorney Tom Neuberger is skeptical.

    “I tell everybody that it’s going to be eight years or more,” Neuberger said. “You’ll have to have a change in your Legislature and a change in your governor.

    Those sexually abused as children who will be testifying in Harrisburg Monday hope that is not true.

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