Today marks the opening of a one-year window allowing people to file civil lawsuits that were previously barred by state statute of limitations – in New York.
One year after a grand jury report detailing alleged sexual abuses by Roman Catholic priests in six Pennsylvania dioceses, the state legislature has not afforded abuse victims such an option, even though it was one of four recommendations contained in the report.
The grand jurors called child abuse by so-called predator priests a “crime against society.”
“We’re issuing this report to make that clear, and to push for action,” they wrote.
The report outlined in devastating detail the alleged abuse of more than 1,000 child victims at the hands of more than 300 clergy members. It prompted inspection of archdiocesan files in other states and provoked condemnation from Pope Francis himself.
In addition to pushing for a limited window for victims to file lawsuits, the report asked legislators to remove the criminal statute of limitations to prosecute abusers, clarify the law for mandated reporting and prohibit nondisclosure agreements from applying to criminal investigations.
State lawmakers have yet to make any of the recommendations law.
“I am deeply disappointed that we were not able to complete that process last session,” said state Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Carroll Township.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed bills that would heed all four of the grand jury’s recommendations in April. They’ve languished in the Republican-controlled Senate.
“(I) am hopeful they will see further action in the Senate this fall,” said Rep. Ryan Warner, R-Perryopolis.
There has already been further action in other states.
Just in the four months since the Pennsylvania House passed bills addressing all four grand jury recommendations, Washington, D.C., Montana, Arizona, Vermont, Rhode Island and New York all reopened statutes of limitations for reviving expired claims, according to Child USA, a nonprofit think tank.
Connecticut and New Jersey will reopen statutes of limitations later this year.
The state House last September overwhelmingly approved amending a bill to create a two-year window for litigation for victims whose civil remedies already expired, but Senate GOP opposition blocked the provision.
A Senate Republican counteroffer would have given victims a two-year window to sue surviving individuals but not institutions like the church, and provided framework for a victims’ compensation fund. Then-House Speaker Dave Reed, R-Indiana County, rejected the proposal.
The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, the public affairs arm of the state’s Catholic dioceses, opposes a litigation window, noting concern that it could force dioceses into bankruptcy and prevent them from helping victims or performing social services.
Victim advocates, Senate Democrats and Attorney General Josh Shapiro have urged the General Assembly to approve a civil window, condemning Senate Republicans for blocking it.
All House members representing districts in Fayette, Greene and Washington counties voted in favor of all four bills containing grand jury-recommended reforms.
“As a legislature, we must do all that we can to assure that no one is using their position of power or influence to sexually target and abuse someone over whom they have authority, particularly if that victim is a child,” said Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Jefferson.
One of those bills would eliminate the criminal statute of limitations on child sex crimes going forward and raise the age limit for civil claims from child sex abuse to 55 from age 30.
“While there remains much debate on whether a window would be legal, with passage of this bill, current and future victims could report crimes committed against them when they feel ready,” said Rep. Tim O’Neal, R-South Strabane Township. “This was a vital step to ensure that we’re not faced with the same dilemma and allow us to hold perpetrators more accountable in the future.”
Another House bill would make ongoing failure to report continuing sexual abuse a third-degree felony if the accused had known or had reason to suspect a child was being abused.
House Bill 1171, which the House approved 191-0, would specify past or future nondisclosure agreements cannot prohibit victims from communicating with law enforcement.
There are multiple civil window bills. House Bill 963, which passed the House 177-15, would amend the state Constitution to allow for a two-year retroactive window for victims whose statutes have expired.
Senate Bill 540, which has not been voted on, would provide a two-year civil window to revive previously expired claims without a constitutional amendment, a step Shapiro said would add unnecessary delay for victims since constitutional amendments must pass both the House and Senate in two consecutive two-year legislative sessions before going to voters for final approval.
Rep. Matt Dowling, R-Uniontown, said a “key piece” of the House-approved reform package was eliminating nondisclosure agreements in criminal investigations.
House Bill 962 would waive sovereign and governmental immunity in child sex abuse claims for damages caused by “actions or omissions … which constitute negligence,” meaning public institutions like public schools and local governments would no longer be exempted against child sex abuse suits.
“It was important to me that victims of not only the church, but also of public schools and government agencies also see justice,” Dowling said.
After passing the lower chamber, House Bills 962, 963 and 1171 were all referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Bartolotta sits on the committee and said she will closely review each of the bills.
She said eliminating the criminal statute of limitations on child sex crimes and waiving the Commonwealth’s sovereign immunity related to child sex abuse “must be addressed.”
Meanwhile, dioceses are pushing ahead with their own victims’ compensation programs, which has made it possible that many victims could have already forfeited their right to sue the church.
A six-month claims submission period for the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program established by the Diocese of Pittsburgh to provide compensation to victims of abuse by priests or deacons of the diocese ended July 31, and an initial three-month claims period for a survivors’ compensation program for clergy sex abuse within the Diocese of Greensburg ended May 28, with the diocese still yet to announce if any subsequent claims periods will be opened.