In Reading, Wolf signs child sex abuse statute reforms into law

(l-r): Rep. Mark Rozzi, Gov. Tom Wolf, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, Rep. Jim Gregory. (Screen capture)

Calling the day “bittersweet,” Gov. Tom Wolf signed a sweeping reform of Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations for sexual abuse victims into law on Tuesday, capping years of efforts by survivors and their advocates.

Wolf signed the bills during a ceremony in Reading, in the home district of Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, a survivor of clergy abuse who was one of the leaders of the reform effort.

The bills that Wolf signed Tuesday will eliminate the statute of limitations for victims of sexual abuse who press criminal charges against their abusers and expand the statute for victims pursuing civil lawsuits.

Wolf was joined Tuesday by Rozzi, and Reps. Jim Gregory, R-Blair, Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery; as well as Senate Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, and Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

These bills follow the recommendations from the 2018 grand jury report into clergy sex abuse, led by Shapiro. 

“It’s about putting laws in place that given victims their day in court,” Rozzi said. 

‘These victims want their day in court’: In surprise move, state Senate poised to vote this week on statute of limitations reform.

At the signing Tuesday, at his alma mater, Muhlenberg High School, Rozzi told the students in attendance, “these bills are for you,” adding that the previous statute of limitations laws were “unacceptable.”

The reforms lawmakers passed will: 

  • Abolish Pennsylvania’s criminal statute of limitations on childhood sexual abuse and extend the timeline victims have to file civil action against their abusers.
  • Amend the Pennsylvania constitution to create a two-year window in which victims can file civil lawsuits in old cases. The amendment, which must be passed in another legislative session and ratified by voters, does not require Wolf’s signature.
  • Clarify penalties for failure to report child abuse
  • Make conversations with law enforcement agents exempt from non-disclosure agreements.
  • Create a fund for victims of sexual abuse to pay for abuse-related therapy. 

The Legislature was on the cusp of passing a similar package last year, but Senate leaders backed out at the last minute. The bills faced opposition from the powerful insurance lobby and the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, which declared itself neutral on this year’s reform package.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jeffeson, said then that the Senate didn’t want to vote on the bills because a key part of the package would be unconstitutional: the retroactive two-year civil window, which will give survivors two years to file lawsuits in old sexual abuse cases where the statute of limitations have expired. 

Those opposed to the two-year window said it would flood the courts with cases and potentially bankrupt churches and other institutions that shielded abusers.

Senate Republicans say the constitutional amendment included in this year’s package will safeguard them against legal challenges from churches, insurers and other institutions that will be on the hook for settlements.

But victims and reform advocates say it is a stall tactic, adding that the amendment will prolong inevitable court battles. 

Wolf praised the three laws in the reform package, but added that more work is needed to give victims closure, including the passage of a referendum to amend Pennsylvania’s constitution to include the two-year window.

“We must recognize that we are not yet done,” Wolf said.

A native Pennsylvanian, Cassie Miller worked for various publications across the Midstate before joining the team at the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. In her previous roles, she has covered everything from local sports to the financial services industry. Miller has an extensive background in magazine writing, editing and design. She is a graduate of Penn State University where she served as the campus newspaper’s photo editor. She is currently pursuing her master’s degree in professional journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In addition to her role at the Capital-Star, Miller enjoys working on her independent zines, Dead Air and Infrared.