Last week, by a vote of 49-0, the Pennsylvania Senate passed HB 1947 which broadens civil and criminal statute of limitations laws for victims of child molestation. Once passed, the changes to existing law would eliminate civil and criminal statute of limitations laws for child sex abuse in this state.
However, the Senate missed a real opportunity to set an example for the rest of the country. It amended HB 1947, omitting an important retroactive clause. The Senate should have passed HB 1947 with the retroactive clause, especially considering that many of the recent national news headlines about major child sex abuse cover-ups have come from Pennsylvania. Take the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal or the Philadelphia Archdiocese scandal. Both involved decades of allegations of particularly egregious acts of child molestation and massive cover-ups. Given these scandals, Pennsylvania should be setting an example as a real pro-victim state. Instead, the Pennsylvania Senate has taken an opposite stance.
HB 1947’s Retroactive Clause
When it was passed by the House of Representatives, HB 1947 contained a retroactive clause–it would have revived many civil cases or lawsuits which were previously time-barred due to older statute of limitations laws. In 2002, the last time Pennsylvania’s civil statute of limitations law was amended for cases of child molestation, the deadline for child sex abuse lawsuits was extended, from a victim’s 23rd birthday until their 30th birthday, a mere 7 years.
For those who had not yet turned 50 years of age, the retroactive clause would have opened a special window of time (2 years) for civil child sex abuse lawsuits. In other words, individuals whose cases were too old to be filed would have had a 2 year period within which to file their lawsuits.
The Senate passed HB 1947 without the retroactive clause. The Senate did, however, make some concessions for future victims of child molestation. For the most part, the Senate’s amendments eliminate both civil and criminal statute of limitations laws for acts of child sex abuse that occur after the law is enacted.
Why Retroactive Clauses are Critical
It’s important to note that in many of the cases the retroactive clause would have revived, perpetrators are outside the reach of any criminal prosecution. We also know that abusers often continue abusing children until they are caught, and just because an abuser ages clearly doesn’t mean they cease claiming victims. Many predators who are in their 60s, 70s and even 80s will sexually abuse children. These retroactive clauses, like the one the PA House pushed through, would have shined a light on perpetrators of child sex abuse who remain hidden and protected due to older statute of limitations laws, both criminal and civil.
Take for example, the recent case of former Judge William Bradley, a Delaware State court judge who admitted to sexually abusing a pre-teen decades ago. He was outside the reach of any criminal prosecution, and the victim in that case fought hard to get justice. Over 6 years ago, Delaware passed a retroactive clause in child molestation cases. This allowed the victim to file his civil lawsuit. Ultimately, the judge admitted to the abuse. He was later removed from the bench and disbarred from practicing law. Because the Delaware legislature passed the retroactive clause, the judge was held accountable for his actions the only way he legally could have been, and that was through a civil lawsuit.
The Pennsylvania Senate shut the door on the retroactive clause of HB1947, showing a clear preference for insurance companies and religious organizations, i.e., those which stand to lose a great deal as a result of these kinds of clauses. Retroactive clauses would result in a slew of child sex abuse lawsuits. This is why religious organizations like churches and their insurance companies fought hard to prevent the passage of the retroactive clause. The retroactive clause basically boiled down to money, over victims. The Senate basically folded to those who have provided safe harbor to child predators.
It’s not too late for Pennsylvania. Just because the retroactive clause didn’t pass now doesn’t mean it won’t pass in the future. The House of Representatives clearly is on board. The Senate just needs a change in leadership. Only time will tell.
If you experienced child molestation years or even decades ago and are discouraged about the lack of change, there is hope. HB 1947 is the closest the Pennsylvania legislature has ever gotten to passing a retroactive clause. There have been many other similar bills which did not even get out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. You can also take action by contacting your senators and voicing your opinion. It matters.
- Pennsylvania House Bill 1264, as Amended [Effective in 2012, certain experts are allowed to testify about victim behavior in criminal sex abuse cases in Pennsylvania and explain why victims may wait to file reports against perpetrators.]
- Sex Abuse Education in New Jersey Schools – Erin’s Law [New Jersey legislature considers Erin’s Law, named after a national sex abuse victims’ rights advocate. Erin’s Law requires age-appropriate education for students beginning in pre-school.]
About Laffey, Bucci & Kent – Our Sex Abuse Victims’ Rights Lawyers
Our sex abuse lawyers have handled dozens of sex abuse and assault lawsuits in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and throughout the U.S.
Firm partner Brian Kent is a former assistant prosecutor from the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office in Pennsylvania. For a free consultation, please call our Philadelphia office. 215.399.9255
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