Restoring survivors’ rights to pursue justice empowers them to change the narrative of abuse | Opinion

Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, was abused by a priest as a child and has been at the forefront of the PA General Assembly's attempts to adjust laws for victims of childhood sexual abuse. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

By Abbie Newman

Earlier this month, an administrative error delayed a proposed constitutional amendment that would have supported adult survivors  of child sexual abuse by expanding their rights to bring an action under the new statute of limitations, which was increased in 2019 to unlimited age for criminal claims and 55 years of age for civil claims.

Without some specific provision, many survivors have ‘aged out’ of the system which finally understands the difficulties many survivors face when deciding whether to report abuse and pursue justice.

The inability to pursue justice when they are able to come to terms with what occurred inhibits survivors’ ability to address long-standing trauma.

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), the long-term effects of child sexual abuse can include post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and other mental health diagnoses. In addition, the delay may mean that abusers who have not yet been brought to justice have the opportunity to continue to abuse others. For many victims, the trauma of abuse has been compounded by widespread institutional scandal and coverup or stigma regarding sexual abuse by a family member.

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Lawmakers could pursue a legislative fix  to open a window of time for these survivors to bring a claim instead of amending the constitution.

However, there are threats by opponents to appeal any legislative measure as unconstitutional.  An appeal process to a legislative remedy would further delay justice and re-traumatize victims who were expecting the constitutional amendment to pass this year. The best solution for survivors of child sexual abuse is a lasting solution.

In an effort to rectify this error and its potentially devastating effects for adult survivors, many Democrats and Republicans in the House are now proposing the invocation of Article 11 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, which allows for an emergency process that would put the amendment back on track to be on the ballot in May.

This emergency amendment process has only been used three times before. The process would require support from two-thirds of both the House and Senate before being added to the ballot in May.

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The viability of this emergency amendment will come down to whether there is enough support in the Senate. Child sexual abuse knows no party: Adult survivors of child sexual abuse work on both sides of the aisle, as is evident in the coalition led by Democratic state Rep. Mark Rozzi and Republican state Rep. Jim Gregory, both survivors of child sexual abuse who are working together on the emergency amendment process.

The effects of child sexual abuse reverberate through entire communities, degrading trust, inflicting trauma and instilling deep shame. Restoring survivors’ rights to pursue justice empowers them to change the narrative of abuse. This isn’t an issue that can wait two years. Pennsylvania lawmakers owe survivors a swift and clear path to justice.

Lawmakers also owe victims a thorough investigation into the processes that led to the oversight. While details are not yet publicly available about how and why this consequential error occurred within the Department of State, it’s important to consider pursuing changes that would prevent the same error from happening again in the future. This devastating, though likely unintentional, oversight has yielded unnecessary suffering to adult survivors on the path to healing.

Whether abuse happened yesterday or 40 years ago, survivors deserve the opportunity to pursue healing and justice.

In addition to advocating for legislation that supports victims, Mission Kids Child Advocacy Center and child advocacy centers  throughout Pennsylvania work to protect child abuse victims in a process that brings prosecutors, police, social workers, mental health specialists and medical professionals together to promote healing and justice.

This multidisciplinary and collaborative approach minimizes additional trauma to children and non-offending family members when a child bravely reports abuse.

Championing child abuse prevention programming and cultivating a safe space for children to address the trauma of child sexual abuse are long-term solutions to a problem that has plagued Pennsylvanians for too long. In the short-term, however, lawmakers need to stand with victims and empower them to pursue justice.

Abbie Newman RN, JD, is the Chief Executive Officer of Mission Kids Child Advocacy Center and a member of the Board of Directors of the Pennsylvania Chapter of Child Advocacy Centers and Multidisciplinary Teams. Mission Kids and all Child Advocacy Centers in Pennsylvania are dedicated to achieving healing and justice for victims of child abuse.