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Pennsylvania Governor To Sign Anti-Child Abuse Measures

Jacqueline Larma

Pennsylvania’s governor 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.

Gov. Tom Wolf signed the legislation less than a week after it cleared the final hurdle in the General Assembly.

The legislation Wolf approved was based on recommendations in last year’s landmark grand jury report about the coverup of hundreds of cases of child sexual abuse in six of Pennsylvania’s eight Roman Catholic dioceses over much of the 20th century.

However, Republicans with majority control of the state Legislature blocked a top priority of victim advocates, victims and state Attorney General Josh Shapiro. They sought, unsuccessfully, to persuade lawmakers to temporarily lift time limits in state law that bar now-adult victims of child sexual abuse from suing their perpetrators and institutions that may have helped hide it.

Wolf, a Democrat, also gave his approval to two other pieces of companion legislation. One invalidates secrecy agreements that keep child sexual abuse victims from talking to investigators. The other increases and clarifies penalties for people who are required to report suspected child abuse but fail to do so.

Wolf signed the bills at Muhlenberg High School in Reading, the home district of state Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, who championed the legislation and who has told of his own rape as a 13-year-old boy by a Roman Catholic priest.

The grand jury report prompted a lengthy battle in the Legislature.

Victims and their advocates had also sought a two-year window to file claims over past abuse, but top Republicans, warning of its unconstitutionality, offered the alternative of amending the state constitution.

The multi-year amendment process has begun, but the bill must again pass both the House and Senate in the 2021-22 legislative session before voters will decide its fate in a statewide referendum.

The main bill in the legislative package ends any statute of limitations, in future cases, for criminal prosecution of major child sexual abuse crimes. Current law limits it to the victim’s 50th birthday.

Victims would have until they turn 55 to sue, compared to age 30 in current law. Young adults ages 18-23 would have until age 30 to use, where existing law gives them just two years.

Police could file criminal charges up to 20 years after the crime when young adults 18-23 years old are the victims, as opposed to 12 years after the crime for victims over 17 in current law.

About two dozen states have changed their laws on statutes of limitations this year, according to Child USA, a Philadelphia-based think tank that advocates for child protection.

In New Jersey, lawmakers expanded the civil statute of limitations from two years to seven years. The bill opened a two-year window, which starts on Dec. 1, to victims who were previously barred by the statute of limitations. It also allows victims to seek damages from institutions.

New York raised the victim's age for which prosecutors can seek a felony indictment from 23 to 28. The law also gave anyone a year starting in August to file child sex abuse lawsuits against individuals and institutions, and civil lawsuits going forward can be filed until the victim is 55, up from 23.

*This story was updated at 10:51 a.m. on Nov. 26, 2019.