The Senate Judiciary Committee today was scheduled to hear from several witnesses on whether House Bill 1947 violates Pennsylvania’s Constitution, which prohibits the General Assembly from retroactively altering statutes of limitations to revive causes of action that have expired.
“I applaud this Committee for its care in developing legislation to protect victims of childhood sexual abuse and striving to do so in a manner that is consistent with the Pennsylvania Constitution,” said attorney Cary Silverman. “Based on my examination of Pennsylvania law, it is my opinion that H.B. 1947, to the extent it would revive time-barred civil claims, violates the Remedies Clause.”
Silverman, a partner at Shook, Hardy & Bacon LLP law firm and an adjunct professor at George Washington University Law School, previously testified before state legislatures on bills that would retroactively eliminate or extend a statute of limitations. He was asked by the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference to closely examine the issue.
“My conclusion is that over 150 years of Pennsylvania law is consistent and unequivocal on this point: reviving a civil claim for which the statute of limitations has run impermissibly interferes with a vested right and violates the Remedies Clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution,” Silverman wrote.
Silverman explained that the Pennsylvania Constitution in Article I, Section 11, contains a provision known as the Remedies Clause. The provision does not permit the General Assembly to eliminate certain fixed rights, including the right to bring an accrued claim or the right to assert an established defense.
Silverman cited multiple court cases as far back as 1908 and as recent 2008 that reaffirm the protections offered by the Remedies Clause. Silverman said, “There is no inconsistency in these decisions. Individually and collectively, they stand for the proposition that the General Assembly cannot eliminate accrued claims or defenses.”
The PCC is not opposed to eliminating the statute of limitations for criminal prosecutions. We can all agree that anyone who sexually abuses a child should be punished by the law.
However, the PCC is opposed to a provision in the bill that would allow retroactive civil lawsuits against private and religious entities. The lawsuits, many of which would be impossible to defend, could lead to the closure of parishes, schools and ministries that serve today’s Catholics, who are in no way responsible for abuse that occurred decades ago.
The Catholic Church has learned hard lessons regarding child sexual abuse and has taken responsibility for the abuse that has occurred within its ranks. The dioceses across Pennsylvania have implemented changes that offer assistance to abuse survivors and affirm that they are not at fault for the crimes committed against them.
The Church has also taken great strides to protect children and provide financial assistance for services for survivors and their families, no matter how long ago the crime was committed, and for as long as necessary. To date, Pennsylvania’s dioceses have spent more than $16.6 million to provide compassionate and supportive victim assistance to individuals and families.
Today, the Church is a leader in ensuring that children are protected. In 2002, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued its Charter to Protect Children and Young People, requiring education, reporting and training in an effort to stop child abuse.
Today, the Catholic dioceses of Pennsylvania require:
- A one-strike-you-are-out policy for clergy, employees and volunteers.
- Church officials to report any allegation immediately and directly to proper law enforcement agencies.
- Permanent removal from ministry of clergy for any credible allegation of misconduct.
- Complete background checks for all adults who interact with children, including clergy, employees and volunteers
- Training for all adults who interact with children through the church regarding how to keep children and young people safe from sexual abuse, how to recognize the signs of abuse, and how to report abuse. Catholic school students receive age-appropriate safety training.
For more information, please go to www.pacatholic.org.