Adult child sex abuse survivors in Pennsylvania are one step closer to having more legal options. After a government error derailed an earlier bill that would have helped survivors, lawmakers are committed to finding a solution for these victims.
Pennsylvania lawmakers are currently taking a two-pronged approach to pass legislation for survivors. The end goal of this legislation is to open a two-year “look back” window to benefit adult survivors.
Pennsylvania Lawmakers’ Two-Pronged Approach
Lawmakers are proposing two legislative options to open a retroactive window for abuse survivors to file claims. They have proposed a constitutional amendment and legislation to pass a “look back” window law.
Pennsylvania Congress Approves Constitutional Amendment
At the end of March, the state Congress approved a constitutional amendment to open a “look back” window. The Senate voted 44–3 in favor of the amendment. The amendment passed in the House 188–13.
However, there are several more steps before this amendment becomes law:
- Congress must approve the amendment again in the next legislative session.
- Voters must approve the change at the polls.
The next legislative session begins in January 2023. This means survivors have to wait at least two years to seek justice under an amendment.
Lawmakers had already approved this amendment in two consecutive sessions. But, due to a government error, they had to restart the entire process earlier this year.
State House And Senate Committee Approve Bill
Lawmakers who support a legal window have also proposed regular legislation to open the “look back” window. On April 7, 2021, the Pennsylvania House approved this bill 149–52. It then went onto the Senate.
Supporters are unsure how the bill will fare in the Senate and whether it will receive approval from Republican senators. Some critics believe, if passed, this bill could financially overwhelm state public schools. Many Republicans in Congress have also been unsure about the legality of a bill. Some believe a constitutional amendment is the only legal way to open a “look back” window.
However, despite some concerns, the bill is gaining traction in the Senate. On April 21, 2021, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved this bill 11–3. Many see this as a promising sign, signaling the bill may have enough support to pass in the Senate.
“Today’s vote brings these brave survivors the closest they have been to having their day in court.”
Survivors Have Waited 16 Years For Justice
Pennsylvania lawmakers have been discussing legislative reform of child sexual abuse laws for more than a decade. In 2005, the first grand jury report in the state found horrific instances of abuse in the Philadelphia Archdiocese.
The most recent state grand jury report was released in 2018. The report reviewed clergy abuse allegations in six Pennsylvania dioceses. It identified more than 1,000 victims and more than 300 accused clergy members.
The 2018 report also identified ways in which the Pennsylvania dioceses concealed the abuse by Catholic priests.
If lawmakers are successful, a legal “look back” window would give thousands of victims a renewed chance at justice. Many survivors are currently time-barred from filing a lawsuit against responsible dioceses under the state’s statute of limitations.
The “look back” window would allow any survivor of childhood sex abuse to file a civil claim.
Several other states have enacted similar retroactive windows. Thousands of lawsuits have been filed under New York’s Child Victims Act. California, New Jersey and North Carolina also opened “look back” windows.
Nationwide, survivors have filed decades-old claims against the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America and schools. Now, Pennsylvania survivors may soon have the same renewed opportunity to hold their abusers, and the institutions that worked to hide the crimes, accountable.
“If you believe as strongly as I do that abuse victims have been denied a fair remedy for far too long, then we are obligated to attempt every avenue to deliver a just result.”
Couloumbis, A. (2021, April 21). Relief for child sex abuse survivors revived in Pa. Senate after Wolf administration error. Spotlight PA.
DeJesus, I. (2021, April 19). With return of lawmakers, victims of child sex crimes implore Pa. Senate to advance reform bill. PennLive.
Finnerty, J. (2021, March 24). PA House backs plan that would put abuse lawsuit question on ballot in 2023. New Castle News.
Levy, M. (2021, April 21). Lawmakers move closer to letting child sex abuse victims sue. The Associated Press.
Scaolforo, M. (2021, March 24). Child sex abuse lawsuit ‘window’ amendment clears Pa. House. The Associated Press.
Scaolforo, M. (2021, April 7). State House advances 2-year child sex abuse lawsuit window. The Associated Press.