Pennsylvania Senate Committee Advances Three Reform Bills -- One Controversial -- that Protect Children and Support Survivors
The Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary Committee has advanced several reform bills aimed at increasing protections for children and supporting survivors of sexual violence. We are grateful for the continued attention to this critical issue and hope that Pennsylvanian stakeholders and victims can find a reform solution that works for all.
One of the bills, HB 962, would amend the state’s archaic statute of limitations law to allow victims until age 55 to file a lawsuit. Another bill, HB 963, would give survivors in Pennsylvania a two-year “window to justice,” allowing those victims whose claims were previously barred by statute of limitations an opportunity to bring their cases forward. However, the vehicle for this reform – using a constitutional referendum – is a controversial one. House Bill 1171 would clearly state that confidentiality agreements cannot prohibit someone from speaking to law enforcement. All three bills implement the recommendations made by last year’s grand jury, who uncovered horrific cases of clergy sexual abuse and cover-up in six Pennsylvania dioceses.
But while HB 963 addresses a critical need, it unfortunately does so in a way that most survivors and advocates do not favor. Since it is an attempt to reform the state constitution, HB 963 will lead to a protracted process, one that will involve years of work and could still potentially fail. While we are supportive of the goal of this reform, we believe that legislators in Pennsylvania should be acting to reform those laws today, not kicking the can down the road. Consequently, victims are divided as to whether or not they should support this bill. Ultimately, however, we simply want to see this much needed reform get across the finish line.
These are critically needed bills that would put Pennsylvania’s laws more in line with the realities of sexual violence – many survivors suffer in silence for years due to shame, self-guilt, or fear of being disbelieved. The average age of a victim coming forward is 52. Due to these factors, reforming these laws is the only way that many survivors can have their day in court. Additionally, these lawsuits would bring to light previously hidden information about abusers and their enablers. Getting this documentation into the hands of parishioners and parents can help to protect children and the vulnerable in the present time.
Statute of limitations reform has been a challenging fight in Pennsylvania, and Catholic officials in the state have spent much money and energy working against these new laws. We hope that Church leaders will use their funds in other ways and stop working to prevent survivors from having their day in court.
Ultimately, the fact remains that victims have carried not only the burden of abuse, but also the burden of reforming laws that have allowed abuse and cover-ups to happen. Change needs to take place, and take place quickly, in order to protect Pennsylvania children and help survivors today.
(SNAP, the Survivors Network, has been providing support for victims of sexual abuse in institutional settings for 30 years. We have more than 25,000 survivors and supporters in our network. Our website is SNAPnetwork.org)