Senate Democrats want to give older clergy abuse victims the chance to sue — without changing the Constitution

Sen. Tim Kearney speaks in favor of ending the statute of limitations in child sex abuse cases. (Capital-Star photo by Elizabeth Hardison)

From Jerry Sandusky and Bill Cosby to clergy in the Catholic church, Pennsylvania is “ground zero” in a nationwide reckoning over how to support victims of sexual abuse.

That’s according to the state’s Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm, who appeared with a cadre of Senate Democrats and sexual assault survivors Wednesday to renew calls to reform Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations for sex crimes.

A bill Senate Democrats introduced Wednesday would eliminate the criminal and civil statute of limitations for sexual assault, abuse, and misconduct, and a create a two-year window for victims to bring civil suits in cases where the statute of limitations has passed.

The bill, which backers say is informed by a proposal that died in the Senate last year, is lawmakers’ latest attempt to implement a key recommendation of a 2018 grand jury report that detailed decades of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy and a subsequent cover-up in six Pennsylvania dioceses.

But it’s likely to face opposition from Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, the chamber’s top-ranking official, who said last year that a two-year window for civil suits would violate the state Constitution.

Scarnati’s office could not be immediately reached for comment Wednesday.

Proponents say the reforms would enable more victims to pursue justice against their assailants and abusers. They also say that dozens of states, including New York and New Jersey, have already passed similar legislation.

Pennsylvania’s current statutes give victims of sexual violence up to 12 years to pursue charges in criminal court, according to the nonprofit RAINN. If a rape or assault is committed against a child under the age of 18, they have until they’re 50 years old to bring criminal charges.

But victims on Wednesday said those laws don’t conform with the trauma of abuse. Philadelphia activist LaQuisha Anthony said it took her 12 years to process sexual assaults she experienced in college and as a young child.

Marci Hamilton, CEO of ChildUSA, said the average victim of childhood sexual violence is 52 years old when disclose their abuse.

“We must take away the confusing barriers that require victims to have a calculator and a calendar to determine whether they can access justice in the commonwealth,” Storm said. “It is insane. It is unjust. It needs to end.”

The Senate bill is one of two proposals moving through the General Assembly this week.

Lawmakers in the House advanced bills Tuesday that would reform Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations by amending the state’s Constitution.

Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, who was sexually assaulted by a priest as a child, said that past reform attempts by the General Assembly have not worked. He said Tuesday that a constitutional amendment — which would take a minimum of two years to take effect — might appease lawmakers who are concerned about constitutionality.

Sen. Tim Kearney, D-Delaware, who is a co-sponsor on the Senate bill, said Wednesday that Pennsylvania has already delayed bringing justice to victims. He said he’d vote against the House proposal if it goes to the Senate for a vote.

Kearney acknowledged that the Senate bill might invite legal challenges from opponents who say it’s unconstitutional. But it has the support of Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who can point to legal precedent to argue that it’s constitutionally sound, he said.

Kearney has not yet received assurance from Senate leaders that they will bring the proposal to the floor for a vote, he told reporters Wednesday.

“We’re putting forth the best bill that we can that will move this forward in a timely manner,” Kearney said. “We’ve waited far too long.”

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