Pennsylvania overhauls child sexual abuse laws

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf signs legislation into law at Muhlenberg High School in Reading, Pa., Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019. Wolf approved legislation Tuesday to give future victims of child sexual abuse more time to file lawsuits and to end time limits for police to file criminal charges.

HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf signed into law a package of bills that reform the state’s statute of limitations laws to help future victims of sex abuse but don’t provide immediate help for adult survivors of abuse, including those who suffered at the hands of the 300 predator priests identified in a 2018 statewide grand jury report.

“After tireless and passionate work on the part of so many, especially countless brave victims, these bills will today become law, and victims of one of the most unimaginable forms of abuse will receive the support and rights they deserve,” Wolf said. “And while we celebrate the monumental victory of many survivors of childhood sexual abuse finally receiving their opportunity for justice, we must continue pushing forward until every survivor, of every age, has the chance to tell his or her story.”

Attorney General Josh Shapiro said the package of new laws accomplishes three of the four reforms suggested by the grand jury that examined the decades of abuse and cover-ups within the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania.

The grand jury had called for a window of time to allow adult survivors to file lawsuits even if the statute of limitations in their cases had expired. That effort remains in limbo for at least two years because the General Assembly voted last week to open the window by amending the state Constitution, a process that requires votes in two legislative sessions followed by a statewide ballot referendum.

“These reforms fundamentally change our justice system and will protect generations of children who experience abuse from this day on,” Shapiro said. “While we still must address justice for those survivors who made this day possible, seeing this progress gives me hope that bravery and activism will win over entrenched interests and powerful institutions.”

The reforms included in the legislation signed into law by Wolf include:

• Eliminating the criminal statute of limitations for the most serious abuse of future child sex abuse victims.

• Extending the statute of limitations for future child victims to file lawsuits, giving them until the age of 50 to sue.

• Extending the time victims age 18-24 have to file lawsuits to the age of 30; and giving these young adults 20 years to notify police for criminal prosecution of their cases.

• Providing counseling services for victims of sexual assault via the Crime Victims Compensation fund through the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency.

• Increasing the penalty for failing to report ongoing abuse.

• Clarifying that survivors aren’t barred from talking to police if they sign a settlement that includes a non-disclosure agreement.

Shapiro said only two priests named in the 2018 grand jury report were arrested because of the state’s old statute of limitations.

“Those priests pleaded guilty and are behind bars serving lengthy sentences,” Shapiro said.

If these new laws had been in place when the crimes examined in the grand jury report occurred, “today, we’d have more than 100 predator priests behind bars,” the attorney general said.

The changes provided under the new laws will be historic, said Angela Liddle, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance, a statewide organization focused on child abuse prevention.

“For far too long, our society and legislature remained silent when it came to child sexual abuse and the prosecution of those crimes," she said. "Our leaders finally came together in a unified voice to declare that child predators will no longer be protected under archaic laws."

John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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