– In the wake of the recent news about child sexual abuse within the Catholic church in Pennsylvania, the state House today in Harrisburg approved and Rep. Brad Roae (R-Crawford/Erie) voted for legislation that would greatly expand the ability of child sexual abuse victims to seek and acquire justice.
“We want our state laws to better enable child sexual abuse victims to seek justice through the courts,” Roae said. “One of the best ways we as legislators can support victims of child sexual abuse is by removing hurdles that prevent them from accessing justice through the civil and criminal courts.”
Senate Bill 261
specifically would loosen the statute of limitations for both civil and criminal proceedings related to sexual abuse. A statute of limitations establishes a time period within which a victim must file suit. Once the period has expired, the victim is unable to seek justice through the courts.
Child sexual abuse victims in Pennsylvania currently have up to 12 years after they turn 18 years old to file a civil suit related to the action. Children must essentially file suit before they turn 30 years old.
The bill approved by the House would expand the civil statute of limitations from 12 years to 32 years, allowing a child sexual abuse victim to file a civil suit any time before he or she turns 50 years old.
The bill also would establish no criminal statute of limitations for a variety of charges related to child sexual abuse and sexual misconduct in general.
“By expanding or removing the statute of limitation, we are empowering the victims of child sexual abuse to have their day in court,” Roae said. “These victims deserve to at least have an opportunity to present their case in a courtroom.”
The House amended the bill by adding what Roae believes is an unconstitutional provision. The amendment would create a two-year window in which victims could file civil lawsuits that otherwise would be unallowable due to existing statute of limitations provisions. For example, despite the fact that current law allows only 12 years after a victim’s 18th birthday to file a civil suit, this provision would provide them with a two-year window to file a suit, regardless of when the previous statute of limitations ran out.
Such a provision would essentially retroactively change the law. Courts in the past have struck down similar provisions as unconstitutional.
Because the bill was amended in the House, it now must head back to the Senate for re-consideration. The Senate, Roae said, has been reluctant to back the provision allowing a two-year window in which previous statute of limitations restrictions would be ignored.
“From a pragmatic standpoint, I think it would have been better for the House to adopt the bill without the amendment and send it to the governor to be signed into law. That is why I voted against the amendment,” Roae said. “We then could have considered this other proposal as a separate bill. As things stand right now, there’s no guarantee that we’ll be able to get any of the reforms enacted into law. And even if it is signed into law, there’s always the possibility that it could be ruled unconstitutional. The amendment could jeopardize all the other good provisions that would help victims of child sexual abuse.”
Senate Bill 261 now heads back to the Senate for re-consideration.
Representative Brad Roae
Pennsylvania House of Representatives
Media Contact: Dan Massing