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Child sex abuse law reform moves to Pa. Senate: Why some stakeholders are optimistic this time
Patriot-News - 4/7/2021
Efforts to reform Pennsylvania’s child sex crimes law have long been a moving target.
For years, victims of child sexual abuse and their advocates have been pushing legislation but have come up short.
On Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed a bill to give some child sex abuse victims a two-year period to file claims in civil court, which would help those who were assaulted years ago and have long passed the deadline to seek legal action. The bill now moves on to the Senate.
The measure, which the House approved a vote of 149-52, would allow lawsuits outside the statute of limitations against both public and private entities. Some legislators are aiming to change the state law while also pursuing an amendment to the state constitution.
Victims and advocates have widely supported the two-track approach. Lawmakers are aiming to revise state law and create a two-year window to help victims gain access to the courts sooner, despite inevitable legal challenges. The Legislature has also moved a measure to allow voters to amend the state constitution, a process which would take until at least 2023 but could also offer more insurance to withstand court battles.
For those who have long toiled for reform, it’s another glimmer of hope.
“For me, it’s been about getting the victims the justice they seek,” said Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair, a prime sponsor of the bill. “I didn’t get here because I believed the constitutional amendment was the only way to get it done ... This is the path victims wanted from the very beginning and they couldn’t get there because the Senate would not allow it.”
The commonwealth earlier this year was on track to put the question to voters in May, but a blunder by the Department of State kicked the effort back to square one. Earlier this year, the Wolf administration announced it had failed to advertise the constitutional amendment as required. The Legislature had to restart the lengthy process.
After previous efforts have stalled in recent years, the Senate once again is poised to consider a measure - Gregory’s bill - seeking to update child sex crime laws. Gregory isn’t just the bill’s author; he’s a victim of childhood sexual abuse.
“Here we are,” Gregory said. “They now have a chance once this process unfolds that perhaps it could be very soon that Pennsylvania makes history with a statutory path for statute of limitations.”
Senate Republican leadership has most recently signaled support for the reform measures. Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, has told victims that he supports the dual path to reform.
“The General Assembly has spoken on this issue,” he told PennLive on Wednesday. “If not for the mismanagement of the former secretary of state this issue would have been resolved in May. Since we all assumed we were going to be here in May...we were prepared to be here anyway once voters approved it, I think the dual path is the way to go.”
Corman for now defers to the process, knowing the bill could likely end up in the Senate Judiciary Committee, and even dueling with another similar bill out of the high chamber.
“We certainly will look at it seriously,” Corman said. “Obviously it’s a significant issue and one that I would like to see resolved.”
Sen. Lisa Baker, chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee, has repeatedly expressed a commitment to securing reforms to allow timed-out victims a shot at justice.
To be sure, the hurdles are still in place.
Lawmakers must approve constitutional amendments in two consecutive legislative sessions before they can go to voters. So both chambers would need to pass a constitutional amendment during the 2023-24 legislative session before going to voters for final approval.
And if history is any indication, the road to changing the law in typical fashion will be difficult.
Advocates have been toiling to secure legal relief for adults who were sexually abused as children but have long been out of legal recourse because the abuse happened years or even decades ago. In 2018, a grand jury investigation uncovered widespread clergy child sex abuse in Catholic dioceses across Pennsylvania. While it gained national attention, it wasn’t the first investigation to find sexual abuse in Catholic churches.
In the past, the powerful interests of the Catholic Church and the insurance industry, to name just two, have opposed opening retroactive windows for victims and have aggressively lobbied lawmakers. Some leaders in the GOP-controlled legislature had argued a retroactive window wouldn’t be feasible without amending the constitution.
Republicans still lead the Legislature, but a change of leadership has some believing that statute of limitations reform in Pennsylvania is possible.
State Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks County, is a victim of child sexual abuse who has spearheaded statute of limitations reform in the commonwealth. Rozzi also expressed optimism.
“President Pro Temp Jake Corman told victims that he is confident he has the votes to pass it,” Rozzi said. “He also told them that he believes in a dual path. Now it is up to the Senate to act on those beliefs and pass HB951.”
Erica Clayton Wright, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, offered little clarity on how the GOP-led Senate was likely to move.
Wright noted that last month Pennsylvania Senate passed a constitutional amendment giving all victims of childhood sexual abuse a two-year window to file a case against their abusers.
“Senate Democrats and Republicans overwhelmingly passed the measure in a 44–3 vote, giving all victims the strongest legal path forward to secure justice,” she said. “As the Senate comes back to session, we will be working for the people of Pennsylvania to address how to responsibly allocate COVID-19 stimulus funding to help re-open our state, prepare to pass an on-time budget, and move forward with the Governor’s cabinet confirmations.”
Political analyst Chris Borick believes enough has changed in the Legislature to lend optimism for those who seek reform.
The retirement of former Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, long an adversary to changes in the statute of limitations, could be enough of a game changer, said Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion.
“The Pennsylvania Legislature is top heavy,” said Borick. “Leaders have enormous power in terms of setting agenda and moving bills forward more so than in other states. On pieces of legislation that have general solid public support, and this one has polled well, when you have that situation and you have a change of leadership that might be more amenable, it might open the door. In this case there’s reason to be optimistic, but it’s never guaranteed.”
Powerful interests are still very much play - but so is public opinion, and that has largely been on the side favoring reform.
“Public opinion remains on the side of change and that’s always powerful,” Borick said.
Both Gov. Tom Wolf and Attorney General Josh Shapiro back measures that align with the recommendations handed down by the 2018 grand jury. Reform to statute of limitations law is one of those recommendations.
Since 2002, some 24 so-called statute of limitations revival bills have been enacted nationwide. Some jurisdictions have had multiple windows, including California with two, and Hawaii with three. Overall there have been 19 retroactive windows opened by states and five revivals.
Vermont has completely eliminated statutes on child sex crimes and has enacted a permanent retroactive window.
University of Pennsylvania law professor Marci Hamilton, a statute of limitations expert, said she is cautiously optimistic Pennsylvania lawmakers approve a window for victims in 2021.
“While it is good to see the House’s continued support and pressure for window legislation, for this to happen, Senate Republicans must lead the way when they come back into session,” she said. “This issue remains a high priority.”
In the meantime, victims and their advocates continue to rally, to make calls to legislators and to sit in the public gallery during legislative sessions.
“Five years in and I’m confident that this is and always has been political,” said Shaun Dougherty, who was Gregory’s guest on the House floor this week when the bill was under consideration. “Someone from the Senate side will want to be our next governor. Good luck without the 20 percent voting bloc of the survivor community.”
Dougherty, a survivor of clergy sex abuse, is latching on to hope.
“Corman has told friends of mine that he is confident that he can pass it,” he said.
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