Pa. Lawmakers Fight to Reform Statute of Limitations on Sexual Abuse
Standing on the steps of the Capitol in Harrisburg last week, advocates and legislators announced they’re doubling down on the battle to reform Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations on child sex abuse.
In Pennsylvania, statute of limitation reform bills have been stalled, buried and blocked for many years. Most recently, Rep. Ronald Marsico (R-Dauphin) and Rep. Thomas Caltagirone (D-Berks) bent parliamentary procedures into Cirque de Soleil-worthy formations in order to defeat last year’s bills, ultimately passing watered-down versions that accomplished far less than the original sponsors proposed. The criminal statute of limitations was abolished and the statute was extended 50 years old for civil charges, yes — but the initiative that’s far more important to advocates, and far more controversial, was completely struck from the law as passed: the “window” provision. That’s a temporary window of time, usually one or two years from the date enacted, wherein victims of a crime can file civil charges even though the statute of limitation has run out.
A civil window is vital because raising (or abolishing) the age on a statute of limitation does not allow grandfathering in. It’s confusing, but if a person who was abused as a kid didn’t file charges before the arbitrary statute age of 18, or 23, or 50 years old isn’t suddenly allowed to prosecute when the age limit is upped or abolished. So effectively, raising the age and even now abolishing it entirely only helps the future generation–and criminal windows are unconstitutional.
The champion of the cause is 79-year-old Rep. Louse Bishop (D-Philadelphia), who, in the wake of the Penn State scandal, revealed last fall that her stepfather had raped her starting from when she was 12 years old.
“I thought it almost divine that I was sent into the House of Representatives to have the opportunity to introduce law that would allow us to take care of victims,” she said last week — “older victims, those who had been sexually abused and never were able to talk about it.”
The process has not been easy for the 79-year-old politician and minister. “Ask anyone who has been abused and they can tell you the pain,” she told the crowd last week. “Most of them are not as fortunate as I. They’re not able to go get help if they need it. They can’t afford it.”
Advocates of creating a window for child sex abuse charges point out that it often takes decades — in Bishop’s case, 66 years — for victims to come forward. They say the law as it’s currently written is designed to protect predators, not victims. Indeed, evidence unearthed during both the Penn State and Philadelphia Archdiocese scandals shows that savvy serial predators seek to exploit the SOL to escape prosecution.
Former Philadelphia D.A. Lynne Abraham oversaw the 2005 grand jury report on the Philadelphia Archdiocese. Not one priest was charged as a result of that report due to the statute of limitations. And as PW reported last February, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference has mounted the biggest opposition to SOL reform in the state.
Last week, Abraham declared her support for SOL reform.“This issue is not going away,” she said. But reform won’t be easy: “There are going to be powerful voices which oppose this. Our Archbishop Chaput is going to be the leading opponent against this.”
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput was assigned to the Philadelphia Archdiocese in late 2011 after leading a successful campaign to squash similar SOL bills in Denver, Colorado. Church leaders have been fighting window legislation around the country ever since the first window was installed in California in 2003 and subsequently, 550 lawsuits were filed. They routinely characterize efforts to establish a civil window as prejudice against the Roman Catholic Church.
The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote of Chaput’s meeting with its editorial board in 2011: “Chaput told the board any changes in Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations would have to be ‘for the good of the community as a whole,’ and that he ‘would not want the Catholic Church treated any differently.’
He was referring to the fact that by default, window legislation applies to private, but not public, institutions. As the law stands now, this is true: Public institutions such as schools are protected under the legal concept of sovereign immunity. (Penn State could be sued, however, because it is only a state-related school, not a state school.) But there’s an important point that often goes unnoted: Pennsylvania legislators supporting SOL reform have also proposed within the window bill that child sex abuse be added to the list of exemptions to sovereign immunity — thereby applying the window to private and public institutions alike.
Newly elected Rep. Mark Rozzi (D-Philadelphia), long a civilian advocate of SOL reform, was also on hand at the Capitol last week to declare his continued dedication as a legislator. For Rozzi, the issue is personal:
“For me, my abuse started in 1983 when [a priest] started grooming me. Everything came to a halt for me, though, on March 26 in 2009, when my second childhood friend committed suicide. If I told you the story of the first one, you wouldn’t believe it — you would just shake your head and say, how is this possible? I can’t even go into that. But the second friend who committed suicide, Artie, I felt that I’m particularly to blame for what happened. I constantly remind myself: If I had the courage to come forward earlier to talk about this… I could have possibly saved him. And I didn’t have that courage, and it kills me to this day. And I promise I will never turn my back on the children of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania because of it.”
As Rozzi spoke, a man standing behind him on the stairs clutched a photograph of a framed portrait of a high school boy to his chest. The photo is of a boy who overdosed in 2006, after a civil suit against a priest was thrown out of court. Next, another man came forward, stood tall behind the podium, and detailed his abuse for the first time. “I am Robert Nelson,” he began. “I was repeatedly sexually assaulted as a teenager… Today, I will be counted and I will be heard… today, those who support this legislation stand with the children of this commonwealth, and those who oppose it, stand willfully stand… with the pedophiles.”
An attorney and advocates spoke, recalling that their trauma at realizing that the priests who baptized their children were later suspected pedophiles.
Rep. Michelle Brownlee (D-Philadelphia) was brief and to the point. “There should not be a statute of limitation on childhood sex abuse in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, because it kills children,” she said.
As each speaker took a turn behind the podium, representatives from groups supporting SOL reform stood silently on the stairs behind them: Justice4PAKids, Catholics4Change, BishopAccountability.org, Voice of the Faithful.org, The National Center for Victims of Crime, Stop the Silence.
“What is PA waiting for?” asked Jeff Dion of National Center for Victims of Crime. “After all the grand jury reports, after Penn State, after the release of the Boy Scout secret files, after the criminal convictions of church officials who knew that they were not going enough to protect kids… what is PA waiting for?
“[Pedophiles] know they don’t need to keep kids quiet forever,” he said. “Just long enough.”