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Pa. legislators, advocates rally for statute of limitations reform

Pennsylvania Attorney Gen. Kathleen Kane speaks at a child sex abuse statute of limitations rally at the state Capitol in Harrisburg on Monday.
Pennsylvania Attorney Gen. Kathleen Kane speaks at a child sex abuse statute of limitations rally at the state Capitol in Harrisburg on Monday. PennLive.com via The Associated Press

In the wake of a grand jury report on abuse in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese released earlier this month, state representatives, adult victims of child sexual abuse and advocates gathered Monday at the Capitol to push for statute of limitations reform.

Led by Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, the rally in the Capitol Rotunda was held to demonstrate public support of efforts to revise child sex abuse statute of limitations laws to allow adult victims to prosecute their abusers.

According to the grand jury investigation, priests in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese sexually abused hundreds of children over about 40 years. The report alleges that religious leaders worked to cover up the abuse.

Due to statute of limitations laws, the case cannot be prosecuted.

“First it was Boston, then Philadelphia and Los Angeles, and the pattern repeats itself in Altoona-Johnstown,” Rozzi, who was a victim of child sexual abuse, said. “The only way this ends is if we make it loud and clear to child rapists and those who harbor them, that they can no longer hide.”

Attorney General Kathleen Kane, whose office conducted the grand jury investigation, said perpetrators responsible for child sexual abuse deserve to be held accountable for their crimes, regardless of when they took place.

“There is no statute of limitations on murder,” Kane said, “because it is a ‘life-altering event.’ And for anyone who says sexually abusing a child is not a life-altering event, I beg you to ask someone who’s been through it — because it is.”

Kane said 19 states in the U.S. have already eradicated statutes of limitations on child sexual abuse. Pennsylvania is falling behind on these laws, she said.

“Sexually abusing a child essentially kills all of the childhood foundations necessary to grow into a happy adult with trust,” she said. “This is a life sentence for the child.”

The grand jury submitted three recommendations in its report: Abolish the statute of limitations for sexual offenses against minors; open a window to allow child sexual abuse victims to have their civil actions heard; and possible criminal conduct should be directly reported to law enforcement authorities.

Following the recommendations, the bipartisan movement aims to present two bills to the House for a vote.

House Bill 951, sponsored by Rep. Tom Murt, R-Montgomery, would create a two-year revival window for past victims of child sex abuse to file civil suits.

Murt said the bill would allow past victims to take their cases to court.

The burden of proof is still on the victim, he said, but one of the most important results is that the victims are validated.

“Many of these survivors who finally enter recovery mode find that it’s too late to pursue their abuser in criminal court or civil court,” he said. “This is why the grand jury wisely recommends that we open this two-year window.”

Delilah Rumburg, CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, said this bill is important because most survivors of child sexual abuse wait years to talk about what was done to them. Current laws prevent some adult survivors of child sexual abuse from seeking justice.

“Our laws allow offenders to go unchecked and give institutions the ability to cover up crimes,” she said. “This keeps the public — and our children — at risk. It is time for Pennsylvania to change our laws, now.”

Rumburg said PCAR served more than 3,000 adult victims of child sexual abuse in the past year and more than 7,500 children younger than 18.

She said House Bill 951, allowing a two-year window for adult victims to prosecute, would give them the opportunity to come forward and “eliminate barriers to justice.”

Rep. Ed Gainey, D-Allegheny, advocated for House Bill 655, which would eliminate the statute of limitations for criminal and civil cases of child sex abuse.

Gainey said he strongly believes in eliminating these statutes of limitations that let predators go unaccountable for their crimes.

“How can we put a limitation on the value of life?” Gainey asked. “If our greatest asset in the world is our children … how can we have a statute of limitations on their abuse when we know how difficult it is for them to speak up?”

“This should be a piece of legislation that’s easy to pass,” he said.

Marci Hamilton, a nationally recognized constitutional law expert and author on statute of limitations reform, said making changes to statute of limitations laws is undeniably constitutional under federal law, despite pushback from some legislators.

“It’s not even close — it’s constitutional,” she said. “… The notion that (changing the laws) will take over the world and undermine the justice system is false. All these laws will do one thing — identify hidden predators.”

Hamilton said Pennsylvania is the state with the “most grand jury reports, the most facts — and the least justice.”

Many are still waiting for their chance for justice.

Brenda Dick, of Altoona, said for her, sexual abuse as a child was “a life sentence.”

When Dick first came forward at age 21 after years of abuse, her window to prosecute had just run out. She was told to get on with her life and “get over it.”

She pleaded for state legislators at the rally to change the laws that could allow her to prosecute her abuser and open the door for others to do the same.

“Put away the religious rhetoric, put away the political b---s---,” Dick said. “… Don’t be misled that this is just a Catholic problem. Look around you. It is everywhere.”

Dick said she felt confident that the bills will pass, and wanted her abuser to know “that this isn’t over.”

Rozzi said despite years of vying for statute of limitations reform, state legislators now have the outrage and momentum to bring these bills to the floor and pass them into law.

“Legislators have finally said ‘enough is enough,’ ” he said.

Hamilton called the Altoona-Johnstown case a “tipping point.”

“(Before this case,) it was just a few people,” Hamilton said. “It’s now a movement.”

Were Jerry Sandusky’s victims beyond their statute of limitations?

Marci Hamilton said during Penn State’s litigation with Jerry Sandusky’s victims, the task force chose to overlook statute of limitations laws and settled with victims in civil court regardless of whether they were in statute or out.

“The Jerry Sandusky report didn’t change much on statute of limitations,” she said. “Because god bless Penn State — they didn’t raise the defense.”

However, not all institutions are willing to waive the statute — which is why many adult victims will not have the chance to pursue justice without reform.

ON THE WEB

To learn more about statute of limitations reform, go to SOL-reform.com.

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