October 27, 2016 Legislative Update: HB 1947 was effectively died in the last days of the 2015-2016 legislative session. Key House members have vowed to bring the bill back in the next session.
September 2016 Law Update: Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives is working to get HB 1947 passed with its original sections, one of which would help victims whose cases were previously time-barred. The Senate gutted the bill, which is now in the House. Click here for the September 28, 2016 article.
This past April, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives approved HB 1947. HB 1947 is a historic bill which would amend civil and criminal child sex abuse laws. One of the most contentious aspects of the bill is its retroactive clause. It would revive child molestation lawsuits, i.e., church or priest sex abuse lawsuits, that were previously time-barred due to statute of limitations laws.
Catholic church and insurance lobbyists have pushed hard against this bill, as churches and insurance companies stand to lose the most. Victim advocate groups, crime victim injury lawyers and victims themselves support the bill because it would give countless victims the opportunity to seek justice.
These types of laws are often referred to as “civil windows” because they open a specific window or period of time which allows a child sex abuse victim to file their lawsuit. Other states have passed such laws including Delaware, Minnesota, California and Hawaii.
HB 1947 isn’t the first time Pennsylvania lawmakers have considered these civil windows. For the last 10 years, the legislature has considered many bills similar to HB 1947. However, this is one of the first times the impetus has been strong enough to get swift action. That impetus was the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese child sex abuse scandal, yet another large scale child sex abuse scandal involving a religious or educational institution. A recent grand jury report found extensive abuse within the entire diocese. According to the report, hundreds of children were abused over decades.
Pennsylvania’s History of Major Child Sex Abuse Cover-Ups
Pennsylvania has already been in the spotlight more than once before this scandal. There was the Philadelphia Archdiocese child molestation scandal and the Jerry Sandusky Penn State scandal. These scandals involved decades-long allegations of egregious acts of child molestation and allegations of major cover-ups by those in charge.
The media attention over the most recent church sex abuse scandal in central Pennsylvania seemed like it was poised to be the straw that broke the camel’s back and finally result in significant, meaningful changes to Pennsylvania laws that restrict a victim’s ability to seek justice. But not so fast.
The Fate of HB 1947
After HB 1947 passed the House, it went to the Senate Judiciary Committee which held a hearing earlier this month on the constitutionality of the civil window provision, the law that would revive old child molestation lawsuits.
The Committee heard from multiple lawyers who offered their opinions on whether the law would pass a constitutional challenge. Former Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce Castor, who is now a solicitor general, testified that the law would not. Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane argued in favor of the law. Another well-known crime victims rights lawyer testified that the law was constitutional. Two other lawyers, one representing Catholic churches and the other representing insurance groups, testified that the law was unconstitutional.
It’s highly likely the Senate Judiciary Committee will amend the civil window law or remove it altogether. One potential amendment that is being considered would only open the civil window in cases where the victim can prove fraudulent concealment, a very high burden.
Why Civil Windows are Important – Outing Abusers Who Hide Among Us
Given Pennsylvania’s extensive history of major child sex abuse scandals, Pennsylvania lawmakers should take extensive measures to ensure that this type of conduct never happens again. Large institutions like schools and churches, the very institutions which are supposed to protect our children, cannot be allowed to engage in cover-ups.
Under Pennsylvania law, institutions like schools and churches which turn a blind eye to sexual abuse of children can be held liable and ordered to pay financial compensation to victims. By relaxing strict statute of limitations laws and opening civil windows, lawmakers give victims the opportunity to name their abusers, people who are often hiding among us. This has a two-fold purpose. It provides justice to the immediate victim. It can also prevent abusers from claiming additional victims. The reality is that an individual who sexually abused a child in the past will often claim additional victims until they are caught. These civil windows can certainly hinder a sexual predator.
Several years ago, Delaware was one of the first states to pass a civil window in child sex abuse cases. It gave victims two years to file cases or lawsuits which were previously time-barred. One man took advantage of this law and filed a child molestation lawsuit against a sitting state court judge.
The abuse had taken place over two decades earlier when the judge was in his late 20s and the man was just a boy. The state’s criminal time limit laws prevented any criminal prosecution from taking place. However, with the civil window, the man was able to file his lawsuit and seek justice. Ultimately, the judge admitted to the abuse. He was removed from the bench and disbarred. This was only possible because of the civil window.
If you live in Pennsylvania, please contact your local senator and tell them you support HB 1947 in its entirety.
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