The Pennsylvania legislature gave final approval Thursday to legislation that would eliminate the statute of limitations as it relates to crimes of child sexual abuse, and expand the amount of time victims have to sue their abusers.
While the final passage in the House on Thursday punctuated a years-long battle in Harrisburg, it was more of a comma than a period.
In response to calls spurred by last year’s grand jury report on clergy sexual abuse cover-ups in Pennsylvania, lawmakers passed a second piece of legislation approving a constitutional amendment that would open a two-year window for adult victims to retroactively sue perpetrators, along with the institutions or employers that protected them from prosecution.
Passing a constitutional amendment is no easy feat. Lawmakers will have to take up the issue again next year and pass it a second time, and then it would go to voters in a referendum.
Here’s a look at what was passed and what still needs to happen.
What’s up with the statute of limitations expansion?
The legislation would eliminate the statute of limitations for filing criminal charges against perpetrators of child sexual abuse. It also would extend the window for victims who were sexually abused at age 23 or under to file civil suits against their abusers. Currently, those victims have until they turn 30 to file a lawsuit. Under the new legislation, they would have until they turn 55.
The Senate passed the bill Wednesday. The House had previously passed it, and on Thursday officially approved it, with amendments made in the Senate, in a 182-5 vote. Wolf signed the bill Tuesday.
“This has been a long and trying process, and we are finally at the finish line,” Rep. Mark Rozzi (D., Berks), the prime sponsor of the legislation and a victim of clergy sexual abuse, said Thursday. He added, while banging on the lectern with his hand, “Justice is coming.”
The move was applauded by victim advocates as a positive first step, but some say the legislation doesn’t go far enough. Before it passed the Senate on Wednesday, several members attempted to add amendments that would eliminate the civil statute of limitations and provide for the changes to be retroactive, so victims of child sexual abuse who are now older than 30 could sue their perpetrators.
Opponents have said for years that they worry the idea of suspending the law to allow for such a retroactive effect would be unconstitutional. That could have opened up the legislation to a lengthy court battle. So Rozzi this year put out a new idea: Avoid the constitutionality question by amending the constitution.
Is that going to happen?
It could. The legislature also this week approved the proposed constitutional amendment that would open a two-year window for adult victims to retroactively sue perpetrators, along with the institutions or employers that protected them from prosecution. The Senate passed the legislation Wednesday.
But some victim advocates aren’t thrilled. A constitutional amendment is a cumbersome process. Both chambers of the legislature must pass identical legislation in two consecutive years — meaning the House and Senate would have to pass this again next session — and then it would go to voters. That means the earliest it would be on the ballot is 2021.
And even at that point, it’s not a done deal and could still face court challenges. Earlier this month, the state Supreme Court stopped state officials from counting votes on Marsy’s Law, a constitutional amendment aimed at expanding the rights of crime victims, until and unless its constitutionality is approved by justices.
So this has been a long process?
Yes. Victim advocates have been pushing for statute of limitations reform for years, and those calls grew much louder last year after a landmark grand jury report detailing decades of child sexual abuse and cover-ups in six of eight Roman Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania. (The other two dioceses, in Philadelphia and Altoona-Johnstown, had previously been the subject of investigations.)
The report revealed allegations of abuse lodged by thousands of victims against more than 300 priests. The grand jury recommended reforms to Pennsylvania’s statutes of limitations, and those reforms appeared poised to pass last year, but ultimately failed.
On one side were Rozzi, a number of victims and advocates, and Attorney General Josh Shapiro, whose office oversaw the grand jury investigation. On the other was Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) and Senate Republicans, many of whom had concerns about the constitutionality of opening a window to allow past victims to sue.
Scarnati offered a compromise last fall that would have opened the window to suing abusers but would have exempted institutions and employers, meaning victims of clergy abuse would not be able to sue the Catholic Church. Those talks collapsed, and lawmakers watched as other states, including New Jersey, passed reform bills that Pennsylvania did not.
This week’s overhaul won some support from both sides. Shapiro on Wednesday released a statement in support of the bills, saying they go beyond statutory changes and "fundamentally change our justice system to better protect victims and hold abusers, and those who cover up abuse, accountable under the law.”