As Pennsylvania lawmakers stall, child sex abuse victims suffer | Opinion
Victims are denied legal access to justice by outdated statutes of limitations for child sex abuse.
Legend has it that the Roman emperor Nero “fiddled while Rome burned.” Today, Pennsylvania legislators are fiddling while victims are denied legal access to justice by outdated and unfair statutes of limitations (SOLs) for child sex abuse.
Pennsylvania allows victims of child sex abuse to come forth with civil claims until they are 30, and pursue criminal prosecution until age 50. Both age caps fall short of most states and the estimated average age of victim disclosure, 52.
Instead of passing the urgently needed statutory reform that would give victims from the past a “window” in which to seek justice against their abusers, legislators are making empty promises. A window permits those with expired civil statutes of limitation to bring lawsuits within a given period of years. As neighboring states, such as New York and New Jersey, lead the way on SOL reform with swift passage in 2019, Pennsylvania has taken a step backward.
Even though state Attorney General Josh Shapiro and a nationally recognized organization led by one of us (Marci Hamilton) have separately argued that reviving an expired civil SOL is constitutional under Pennsylvania law, the Republican leadership has decided that a window cannot happen without a constitutional amendment. Of course it can: It would simply require a majority vote from both houses of the legislature, like any other statute. The preference for a constitutional amendment is just that, a preference.
And that preference is gaining steam. Abuse survivor and Democrat Rep. Mark Rozzi joined with Republican Rep. Jim Gregory to split SOL issues into two bills. One bill would eliminate the criminal and civil child sex abuse SOLs going forward, while another requires a constitutional amendment as a precursor to window legislation. Both will be considered in the House Judiciary April 8. The first bill helps victims decades from now; the second delays justice for victims in Pennsylvania by at least three to four years.
We have been fighting since 2005 in Pennsylvania for access to justice for victims. Shapiro’s catalytic August 2018 grand jury report into six dioceses reaffirmed the scope of the problem. Enough. It is time for the promisers to deliver the legal change that justice requires. And it is likewise time for the voters of Pennsylvania to hold their elected officials accountable through calls, letters, and, if necessary, protest that demand speedy passage of a statutory window bill that that Gov. Tom Wolf can quickly sign into law.
The time it takes to try — and likely fail — to amend the Pennsylvania Constitution would buy opponents of true reform more years of the status quo. Those same opponents also can be relied upon to use those intervening years to continue lobbying against change. Calls for constitutional rather than statutory change cannot be credited as good-faith efforts to deliver justice.
While Pennsylvania lawmakers fiddle, there is a glimmer of hope for some Pennsylvania victims. A New Jersey court recently held that a victim sexually abused by a Philadelphia Archdiocesan priest who was taken to Jersey can sue in New Jersey courts. The same is likely true for the New York window. At least we will get a measure of information about abuse in Pennsylvania — but it will be thanks to the bravery of other states’ lawmakers.
In Pennsylvania, churchmen and lobbyists who prefer constitutional amendment to simple, easy, and prompt statutory reform are literally banking on the financial windfall to them of time-consuming delay. The longer the legal change takes, the less likely it will be that they will have to pay the civil damages justice demands.
To all victims, this delay is an affront. To some victims, delay will be deadly. The tragedies of victim trauma and suicides arising from hopelessness will continue. One study found that child sex abuse victims have a 10- to 13-fold increase in suicide over their non-abused counterparts.
No one should be fooled by Pennsylvania’s constitutional amendment charade. Those who fiddle, like those who abuse, must be held accountable.
The Pennsylvania children currently being abused by men and women who could have been identified through a speedily passed reporting window are being sentenced to more abuse, rather than the sunlight that could free them from their suffering. The primary people who can help them are our elected officials in Harrisburg.
Marci Hamilton is the Robert A. Fox professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania and CEO of CHILD USA. Attorney Sarah Klein is a survivor of abuse by Dr. Larry Nassar and is a board member of CHILD USAdvocacy.