HARRISBURG, Pa. (Erie News Now) – In Pennsylvania, victims of childhood sexual abuse and advocates are still fighting for a retroactive two-year window to file civil lawsuits against their abusers.
Monday, families, survivors, lawmakers and advocates demanded action from Senate leadership.
“Senator Corman, Majority Leader Ward, we will never go away,” shouted State Representative Mark Rozzi (D-Berks) toward the Senate.
Rozzi pointed the finger at Senate leadership for sitting on his legislation that would suspend the civil statute of limitations in cases of child sex abuse.
“They have failed the children, the adult victims and the citizens of this Commonwealth,” said Rozzi.
Rozzi’s bill, House Bill 1951 would create a two-year window for child sex abuse victims who could not file lawsuits previously.
On Apr. 7 2021, the House passed the bill with a final vote of 149 to 52. The bill was then sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it passed 11-3 in a bipartisan vote.
“And since then, it has been stalled,” said Rozzi.
In 2019, Governor Tom Wolf signed three bills to protect victims of childhood sexual abuse. The bills covered a number of recommendations from the 2018 Grand Jury Report after its investigation into child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.
In addition to that legislation, lawmakers and advocates sought an amendment to the Pennsylvania constitution to create a two-year revival window in which victims can file civil charges in old cases- a window which they are still fighting for today.
After a serious error by the Department of State, the amendment failed. The Department of State was constitutionally required to advertise the wording of the proposed constitutional amendment in two newspapers in every county, in each of the three months before the next general election when members of the General Assembly are elected. That advertising did not occur before the 2020 general election and the amendment never made it on the ballot for voters to decide.
“That error caused a heart-breaking delay for thousands of survivors, and I am personally sorry for the pain it caused for so many,” said Governor Wolf.
Governor Wolf and Attorney General Josh Shapiro said just because the State Department failed, doesn’t mean the two-year window for justice has to.
“Yes, the Department of State failed. But that shouldn’t be an excuse to not act,” said Shapiro.
Shapiro, who released the bombshell report from a statewide investigative grand jury into sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, says there’s been a global reckoning and legislation needs to be passed now.
“Even the Pope himself acknowledged the truth of what was contained in that grand jury report,” said Shapiro.
Advocates say aside from bringing overdue justice, the bill would protect today’s children of Pennsylvania by exposing hidden predators and institutions that have enabled predators.
“No other state has more information about the workings of child sex abuse cover-ups than the state of Pennsylvania,” said CEO of Child USA Marci Hamilton.
Hamilton says Pennsylvania is falling behind when it comes to its statute of limitations.
“They are now becoming one of the worst states in the country, and it’s just because lawmakers are sitting on their hands,” said Hamilton. “They’ve just chosen to build a wall around the insurance industry and the church,” she added.
Victim advocates like Shaun Dougherty are tired of the stalling.
“If a bill that is supported overwhelmingly by the people of Pennsylvania doesn’t receive a debate and never receives a vote, this is not a representative democracy,” said Dougherty, who is also the President of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). “Survivors should not have to go through the psychological torture of these political battles. We are all tired. Very tired,” said Dougherty.
Given the error by the Department of State, and the lengthy process for a Constitutional amendment which had to restart after the error, a Constitutional amendment is unlikely to appear on the ballot until 2023.
Advocates say the only way to bring justice for victims before then is to pass House Bill 951. Gov. Wolf said he would call a special session if the Senate does not act.
“The Senate should act right now to pass House Bill 951. If the Senate fails to act to support survivors, I will call a special session to bring them back to Harrisburg and get this done because survivors deserve to have this issue resolved,” said Gov. Wolf.