Child sex abuse is a trauma that can haunt victims for the rest of their lives. Lingering feelings of fear, shame, and guilt associated with their abuse can prevent victims from coming forward—often for many years. Sadly, when child sex abuse victims gather the courage to finally report their abuse, they often find too many years have passed for them to hold the perpetrator accountable in criminal or civil court.
However, an August 2018 grand jury report detailing sexual abuse committed by more than 300 priests on likely thousands of child victims in Pennsylvania over the course of decades has led some lawmakers to consider changes to the state's statutes of limitations for child sex abuse cases. If you were a victim of child sex abuse in Pennsylvania, here's what you need to know about efforts to eliminate or extend lawsuit filing deadlines.
Grand Jury Report
Hailed as the “largest, most comprehensive report into child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church ever produced in the United States” by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the grand jury report included information on child sex abuse perpetrated in six dioceses since 1947:
According to the report, the grand jury found that more than 300 predatory priests were credibly accused of abusing over 1,000 children. Sadly, due to the under-reporting of child sexual abuse, the grand jury believes the actual number of children victimized by Catholic priests in Pennsylvania may actually be much higher. The report also states that, rather than taking disciplinary action against sexually-predatory priests, the Catholic church largely shielded abusers from consequences and, in some cases, even promoted them within the church.
Worst of all, the statutes of limitations expired in all but two of the more than 300 sexual abuse cases detailed in the report.
Pennsylvania Statutes of Limitations for Sex Abuse Cases
Statutes of limitation laws determine how long prosecutors and victims have to bring a case against someone for a specific type of crime or injury. Once the statute of limitations expires, prosecutors can no longer charge the alleged perpetrator with that crime, and victims are unable to bring a lawsuit against them in civil court.
Currently, Pennsylvania statutes of limitation laws allow victims to come forward with criminal allegations of child sex abuse until age 50. However, civil child sex abuse lawsuits must be filed by age 30.
What SB 261 Would Do If It Became Law
Pennsylvania Senate Bill 261 would eliminate the statutes of limitations for criminal child sex abuse prosecutions, allowing prosecutors to bring charges against alleged perpetrators regardless of when the abuse took place. SB 261 also proposes raising the cutoff for filing a civil child sex abuse lawsuit to age 50.
Additionally, an amendment to SB 261 introduced by Pennsylvania State Rep. Mark Rozzi and approved by the House would provide a two-year retroactive window for filing child sex abuse civil lawsuits. The amendment gives child sex abuse victims—regardless of age—the ability to file a civil lawsuit for child sex abuse within two years of the date the law passes.
The Future of SB 261 Remains Unclear
SB 261 was passed unanimously by the Pennsylvania State Senate in 2017. Then, in September 2018, the state house passed a version of the bill that included Rep. Rozzi's amendment allowing for a two-year retroactive window for filing civil child sex abuse lawsuits. When the bill was sent back to the state senate for approval, the chamber failed to act on it, as some senators reportedly objected to the inclusion of Rep. Rozzi's amendment.
While the final legislative session of the year has ended with no decision being made on SB 261, the bill's proponents expect it to come under consideration again in the January 2019 session.
Were You or a Loved One a Victim of Child Sex Abuse?
If you or your child has suffered because of sex abuse, the knowledgeable and compassionate attorneys with the Accident and Injury Law Group can help you understand your legal rights and options. Contact us today to schedule an appointment for an initial consultation.