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HARRISBURG, Pa. (ErieNewsNow) — Legislation that would provide a two-year window for victims of childhood sexual assault to file civil lawsuits against their abuser, passed the House earlier this year. The Senate also passed a bill to do the same, but combined it with controversial proposals.
The bills propose a constitutional amendment to provide the two-year window. However, because of changes to the House rules, the bills were re-committed to the House Judiciary Committee for a hearing yesterday. It’s the latest movement in a long effort by victims to be able to sue their abuser outside the statute of limitations in Pennsylvania.
“This is a great state for a pedophile,” said Marci Hamilton, Founder and CEO of Child USA at Wednesday’s hearing. “It is the place where they have been certain that this law would be blocked again and again and again,” Hamilton added.
Advocates and survivors submitted nearly 150 pages of written testimony to the committee, many expressing frustration with the commonwealth for what they call an inability to expose hidden predators.
A two-year window has been introduced in each session since 2011. The road leading up to this week’s hearing has been long and complicated.
“From powerful lobbying efforts against the window, to mistakes made by the last administration, we find ourselves, again, in a position to do the right things today,” said Rep. Tim Briggs (D-Montgomery), Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee on Weds.
Earlier this year, both the Republican-controlled Senate and Democrat-controlled House passed their own versions of the window. However, Senate Bill 1 contained controversial proposals like voter ID.
“Senate Bill 1, we amended and stripped out the problematic language. We sent both Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 1 and House Bill 2, under a special session, that’s sitting in the Senate,” said Briggs on Thursday to Erie News Now. “We want to do this cleanly for the survivors and the victims,” he added.
With another statutory bill passed by the House, HB 2, Briggs says the Senate now has two options to provide the window.
“We will keep fighting until it gets done,” said Briggs.
Some lawmakers in the hearing voiced concern about claim estimates for institutions, including public schools, as outlined in a report by the Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy.
“Based on all of our estimates, removing the statute of limitations and filing a claim for a two-year window is expected to result in total claims ranging from 5 billion to 32.5 billion statewide,” said Dr. Charles Greenwalt of the Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy.
“Those numbers are indefensible,” said Hamilton.
Briggs agrees with Hamilton and says it’s an attempt to scare taxpayers.
“To try to paint a story to scare taxpayers of the extreme cost this was going to be, I wasn’t buying the argument when I first read the report, I wasn’t buying the argument yesterday,” said Briggs.
Rep. Paul Schemel (R-Franklin) is opposed to the window and says it hinders the rights of the accused.
“The statute of limitations is, at least in my understanding- and I’m not a constitutional scholar- there to protect the accused so the accused can appropriately defend themselves,” said Rep. Schemel.
Schemel believes additional stakeholders, like law firms and accounting firms also have a lot to gain by the window.
“What actually happens in most cases is these cases are aggregated into large class action suits that are settled out of court, with very little admission on the part of the defendant,” said Schemel. “The day in court never really comes. A large chunk, of the what would otherwise be money available to the victims, is taken by attorneys and fees. That’s part of the agreement. As institutions go bankrupt, large amounts of money then also have to go to fund their bankruptcy, their defense. Lots of money actually gets absorbed by the system, primarily by law firms and accounting firms,” Schemel added.
Statutory legislation, like HB 2, is the preferred option for advocates. Hamilton says it would protect and encourage victims to come forward. She says more children are at risk each day that hidden predators are not exposed.
“But the much larger number of citizens in the Commonwealth that are harmed by the window not passing, are the parents. They don’t know where their children are at risk,” said Hamilton.
The Senate has not shown any indication of considering either bills sent over by the House.
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