‘Is this ever going to end?’ Abuse survivors still waiting for statutory window

‘This is hard. This is triggering. Is this ever going to end?” Marci Hamilton, of CHILD USA, told the Capital-Star

By: , and - January 10, 2023 3:20 pm

Child sex abuse survivors and their allies rally at the state Capitol for statute of limitations reforms in 2018. Photo Source: Attorney General Josh Shapiro via Flickr.

Nearly two decades after widespread sexual abuse and systematic cover-ups by Catholic clergy were uncovered in Pennsylvania, survivors are still waiting for state lawmakers to give them legal relief.

The latest effort to amend the state Constitution to open a retroactive window for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse to sue their attackers, something legislative leaders issued a commitment to last year, became mired in a partisan dispute in the state House on Monday.

That followed repeated unsuccessful attempts over the last 17 years to pass legislation to create an exception to the statute of limitations for adult survivors whose claims are too old to pursue. Survivors’ hopes for relief through a constitutional amendment were dashed in 2021 when a Department of State advertising error sent the effort back to square one.

“This is hard. This is triggering. Is this ever going to end?” Marci Hamilton, told the Capital-Star, recounting reactions from survivors as the Pennsylvania Legislature struggles to pass a constitutional amendment proposing a two-year statutory window for victims of child sexual abuse to sue their abusers — and those who enabled them — in civil court.

Hamilton, founder and CEO of CHILD USA, a nonprofit think tank, has dedicated years to advocating for statute of limitations reform nationwide, citing how limited timeframes make it harder for survivors to seek justice.

“We brought the first recommendation for a window to Harrisburg in 2005. Seventeen years later, everything was aligned,” she said. “Now, we have to deal with these politics, but my hope is that Pennsylvania lawmakers can make this a priority and just do it.”

Cathleen Palm, the founder of the Center for Children’s Justice, told the Capital-Star she and other survivors are infuriated by the disconnect between the reality of ongoing trauma for those who suffered abuse as a child and the political theater that is playing out in Harrisburg.

Their hopes were buoyed last summer when Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and Republican lawmakers agreed to prioritize a second constitutionally required vote on the amendment in the new session, Palm said.

“It seems like both parties were OK with letting the schism get bigger and bigger because it has more of a political effect,” Palm said.

To appear on the May 2023 ballot, lawmakers must pass the proposed amendment before the end of January, giving the Department of State time to publicly advertise the language ahead of the primary election.

Since November, little has been certain about how the House would function. Democrats won a majority of 102 legislative seats in the 2022 general election, but the death of one Democratic incumbent and the resignations of two others elected to higher office gave Republicans a 101-99 vote majority.

Democrats are favored to win special elections on Feb. 7 for the three vacant seats, all in Allegheny County districts previously held by Democrats.

When the House convened to reorganize last week, neither party appeared to have enough votes to successfully nominate a speaker. In an 11th-hour deal, Republican leaders negotiated with Democratic Rep. Mark Rozzi, of Berks County, to become an independent in exchange for support as speaker.

Rozzi, a survivor of sexual abuse, has pushed for statute of limitations reform since he was first elected in 2012. Rozzi and Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair, championed the survivors’ amendment through three sessions of the General Assembly to get it to the final vote before voters could approve it.

On Monday, Gregory sent a letter asking Rozzi to step down from his position, citing his neglect to formally switch his voter registration to no party affiliation.

Speaking to reporters, Gregory said he supported Rozzi’s nomination because he believed it would help the parties work together by giving neither a majority. To then see the amendment held up over a failure to agree on rules and an effort to put other amendments on the ballot, Gregory said, was a betrayal that he compared to that suffered by sexual abuse victims. 

Gregory, who spoke out about his abuse at age 10 after 38 years, said Monday he felt his voice was not heard in the General Assembly. Palm said that comparison struck a chord for her.

“If he feels unheard, can you imagine what the person who was sexually assaulted at seven feels now,” Palm said, adding that people need to take a hard look at how dysfunction in state government goes against public policy.

“It’s not rocket science, and I’m assuming they all have sufficient goodwill [and] don’t want to drag victims through any more of this,” Hamilton said.

Regardless of what happens in the coming days and weeks in the Pennsylvania Legislature, Hamilton has no plans of giving up on efforts in the commonwealth.

“Pennsylvania is not going to be able to avoid this,” she said. “So, they really should just go ahead and pass it.”

The statutory window and supporting survivors remain top priorities for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, Donna Greco, its public policy and legislative affairs director, told the Capital-Star in a statement.

“We need to see that commitment become a reality in the early weeks of this legislative session,” Greco said. “We know survivors may be struggling. We want them to know help is available. They can call 1-888-772-7227 to contact a confidential counselor at a rape crisis center near them.”

She added that the proposed amendment, if approved by voters, would give survivors of child sexual abuse — whose legal timelines have expired — more time to file civil lawsuits against their abusers.

“Adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse need and deserve this lookback window after over 20 years of advocating for it. We know legal options are critical to many survivors’ healing and pursuit of justice,” Greco said. “It is also a form of public safety — as identifying and bringing to justice individuals who have committed sexual abuse in the past may help protect children throughout the commonwealth today.”

Researchers from the pro-free enterprise Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy gathered in the Capitol on Tuesday to present a report that they said shows the economic impact of a two-year window on the state statute of limitations.

Lifting the statute of limitations, the report found, could result in an estimated 10,000 and 100,000 cases of abuse being filed across the commonwealth with financial claims estimates ranging from $5 billion to more than $32 billion statewide.

Wolf, who leaves office next week, called on lawmakers to focus on passing the proposed constitutional amendment during the special session that he called for last week.

“This special session is meant to provide a mechanism to help prevent this bipartisan issue from becoming entangled with partisan topics,” Wolf said in a statement on Tuesday. “Last fall, we promised action to get this done. I’m asking Republican and Democratic leaders in the General Assembly to complete this vital work.”

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Marley Parish
Marley Parish

A Pennsylvania native, Marley Parish covers the Senate for the Capital-Star. She previously reported on government, education and community issues for the Centre Daily Times and has a background in writing, editing and design. A graduate of Allegheny College, Marley served as editor of the campus newspaper, where she also covered everything from student government to college sports.

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Peter Hall
Peter Hall

Peter Hall has been a journalist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for more than 20 years, most recently covering criminal justice and legal affairs for The Morning Call in Allentown. His career at local newspapers and legal business publications has taken him from school board meetings to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and many points of interest between. He earned a degree in journalism from Susquehanna University.

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Cassie Miller
Cassie Miller

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.

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