Statutes of limitation reform for childhood sexual abuse is a being debated again this legislative session.
Senate Bill 261, which passed the Senate without opposition (48-0) in February, prospectively abolishes the criminal statute of limitation and would allow survivors to file civil lawsuits up to their age 50. The legislation also opens the door to the courts for survivors who suffered sexual abuse in public or governmental institutions by removing the sovereign immunity defense.
On April 4, 2017, the House Judiciary Committee amended SB 261 to further equalize the opportunities for survivors of sexual abuse in public institutions to access recovery of damages through the civil courts. The technical amendments render inapplicable the written notice requirement that public entities must be notified of an individual’s intent to sue only 6 months after the child victim’s 18th birthday, and eliminates the caps on the amount of damages that may be awarded. These amendments “level the playing field” for children who are abused by someone in a public institution with children who may have suffered the same crime in a private setting.
A third amendment strikes the provision in the Senate bill that would eliminate the civil statute of limitations in certain cases against an individual perpetrator or an individual who had direct involvement in allowing the abuse to continue. As amended, the bill would raise the statute of limitations for all civil actions to the victim’s age 50.
Caught up in the debate about making changes to protect children now and in the future has been an effort to change the statute of limitations retroactively. An amendment may be offered to SB 261 to allow lawsuits for decades-old cases. This proposal would, in effect, force the people who make up an organization like the Catholic Church today defend themselves against a crime that was committed in their parish, school, or charitable program years ago. Last year, the Senate held hearings and determined that changing the law retroactively would be unconstitutional in Pennsylvania. Regardless, it is definitely unfair to individual Catholics today whose parishes and schools would be the targets of decades-old lawsuits.
SB 261 was reported out of committee with a vote of 22-5 and will soon be considered by the full House of Representatives. Send a message to your elected officials that it is possible to strengthen laws to give justice to childhood sexual abuse survivors without bankrupting the men, women and children who make up the Church today.
The first obligation of the Church with regard to survivors of childhood sexual abuse is for healing and reconciliation. Our Catholic dioceses and archeparchies continue to reach out to every person who has been a victim of sexual abuse as a minor by anyone in church service, whether that abuse is recent or occurred in the past. Learn more about victim/survivor assistance in Pennsylvania.