Why We Need Statute of Limitations Reform
Unfortunately, like its neighbor, New Jersey, Pennsylvania seems to be a long way off from amending civil child molestation laws. Over the last few years many states, including PA and NJ have considered many bills aimed at tightening laws for child sex abuse or assault. This has been in response to multiple high profile cases of child molestation, two of which occurred in Pennsylvania – the Sandusky Penn State child sex abuse scandal and the Philadelphia priest abuse scandal.
One of the most important laws which profoundly affects a survivor’s ability to seek justice is the statute of limitations in civil lawsuits for child sex abuse or assault. Currently in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, survivors of child molestation only have until their 30th birthday to file a civil lawsuit; the corresponding statute of limitations for criminal cases is a victim’s 50th birthday.
In recent years, Pennsylvania’s legislature has considered multiple bills to amend laws in child sex abuse cases. Several bills would have opened a special law, or civil window. This law would basically revive civil lawsuits for those who were abused by priests, teachers, etc., but due to the statute of limitations, their cases were out of time. Other states such as Delaware and California have passed such civil windows. In 2009, Delaware passed a civil window of 2 years. Firm founder Brian Kent represented a man who took advantage of this civil window and filed a lawsuit against a Delaware state court judge. The judge eventually admitted to the sexual molestation.
Unfortunately, many bills introduced by Pennsylvania legislators died before ever being voted on, and usually they died in the Senate Judiciary Committee. These bills often encounter much opposition from religious/church groups, educational groups and insurance groups. It certainly makes sense; after all, these are the groups that stand to lose the most. Given the extent of the problem, a civil window would likely revive hundreds, if not thousands, of child molestation lawsuits against perpetrators (priests, clergy members, educators, etc.). Insurance companies, representing institutions like churches, religious groups, schools, etc., would certainly lose out, paying settlements and verdicts.
Related: Pennsylvania Supreme Court Deals a Blow to Victims of School Sex Abuse, August 27, 2015 [A discussion of Schanne v. Addis, where a teacher accused of sexually abusing a student turned around and sued the student for defamation, years after the alleged acts. The court’s ruling may produce a chilling effect on reports of teachers abusing students, especially where the student waits until well into adulthood to report the allegations.]
The staunch opposition to these types of bills is understandable; it’s based on the fear of paying large verdicts. However, many survivors seek justice, not large verdicts. Ask any survivor of child sex abuse why they want to pursue a civil lawsuit and 9 times out of 10, it’s to make sure that the perpetrator is outed and that no other child is harmed. Money is not the prime motivator. In fact, survivors often come forward after they’ve heard that the perpetrator is working with children again. In addition, oftentimes, the perpetrator is beyond the reach of the criminal statute of limitations.
For example, a man who was abused by a priest decades ago never pursued a criminal or civil case because he was satisfied with assurances from church officials that the offending priest would go to therapy and would never be allowed to work with children again. Both the civil and criminal statute of limitations expire. Then, the man happens to hear that the priest is teaching young children at a local parochial school. Fearing for the welfare of children, the man feels he has to pursue legal action. Unfortunately, statute of limitations laws work against him. He’s out of luck. However, if a civil window law was passed, the individual would be able to revive his civil lawsuit and hold the priest and church accountable.
It’s time Pennsylvania legislators take action for survivors of child sex abuse. Increasing access to the courts holds perpetrators responsible and can prevent future acts of abuse.
Related Pennsylvania Civil Sex Abuse Law Articles:
- Pennsylvania Considers Major Changes to Civil Legal Rights of Child Sex Abuse Victims in Pennsylvania (May 18, 2015) House Bill 661 would aid survivors of child molestation in accessing Pennsylvania courts. House Bill 661 was introduced by Representative Mark Rozzi, a Democrat serving Berks County. Rozzi is a survivor of priest abuse.
- Child Sex Abuse Lawsuits – What is Happening in the U.S. (September 6, 2013) A look at statute of limitations laws across the U.S. and how they affect a survivor’s ability to seek justice.
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