The Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed a measure that would expand the legal rights of childhood sexual abuse victims. If passed into law, the bill would create a two-year “look back” window for abuse victims to pursue civil lawsuits. During this proposed “look back” window, any survivor of child sexual abuse could file a civil lawsuit against an abuser. This includes survivors with legally expired claims.
The bill now requires approval from a majority of state senators and Pennsylvania voters to become a law.
State Legislature Approved Bill To Lift Legal Deadline
On January 27, 2021, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives approved a bill that could temporarily lift the state’s statute of limitations on child sexual abuse.
A statute of limitations (SOL) is a legal deadline. SOLs vary based on the jurisdiction, the crime and the intended legal action (criminal charges versus a civil claim).
The bill seeks to amend the state’s constitution. If passed, the amendment would open a “look back” window for child sex abuse survivors to file civil lawsuits.
The state Senate will meet to vote on the bill next. If approved, the bill would go to a referendum vote in Pennsylvania in May 2021. This means voters will ultimately decide whether to amend the state’s constitution.
State Senate Creates Identical Legislation
The Senate is also advancing a bill to reform the state’s statute of limitations for child sexual abuse. To amend the state constitution, the House and the Senate must pass the measures in two consecutive sessions. Then, the public has to vote in favor of the measure to make the amendment law.
State lawmakers have already passed the measure once during the last session. They must pass it again in the 2021-22 session in order to meet all legal requirements for a constitutional amendment.
The Pennsylvania Legislature will have to approve the measures by February 18, 2021, in order for the referendum to appear on primary ballots in May.
A “Look Back” Window Allows Older Survivors To Take Legal Action
If approved, the two-year “look back” window would revive expired civil cases. This means older survivors may seek legal action for abuse that occurred decades ago.
“This is just another step in the process of recognizing those who have been sexually abused in past decades. They have been waiting a long time for this and I‘m just grateful to colleagues who voted for this so strongly…”
If passed, Pennsylvania would join 19 other states that have recently created “look back” windows for child sexual abuse cases. For example, the state of New York passed the Child Victims Act (CVA) in 2019. This law included a one-year “look back” window. In 2020, New York lawmakers extended the window after COVID-19 measures temporarily shut down state courts.
Reform Efforts Stem From 2018 Clergy Sex Abuse Report
Advocates and State Assembly members called for reform after a 2018 grand jury report outlined statewide Catholic Church abuse. More than 1,000 child sex abuse victims were identified in the Pennsylvania report.
As a result, Rep. Mark Rozzi authored a 2018 bill to reform child sex crime laws. Rozzi’s bill was passed in 2019 and eliminated the statute of limitations for criminal cases. The bill also extended the amount of time victims had to file civil lawsuits against their abusers to age 55.
Rozzi’s bill also eliminated sovereign immunity.
Sovereign immunity gives public and government institutions a shield from being sued.
The current Senate bill reaffirms the removal of sovereign immunity going forward.
Rozzi is a survivor of clergy sex abuse and has been supporting reform since 2005. He recently delivered an appeal in support of Gregory’s bill.
“Victims deserve their day in court,” said Rozzi. “Victims have waited long enough.”
ChildUSA. (N.D.) 2021 SOL Summary. Retrieved January 29, 2021.
DeJesus, I. (2018, August 15). Clergy sex abuse report delivers a scathing rebuke on Catholic Church officials: overview. PennLive.
DeJesus, I. (2021, January 25). Statute of limitations reform takes another step in Pa. legislature. PennLive.
DeJesus, I. (2021, January 27). Pa. House passes measure to allow voters to create a window for child sex abuse victims to go to court. PennLive.
Office of Attorney General. (N.D.) Pennsylvania Diocese Victims Report. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Retrieved January 27, 2021.