For nearly 10 years, Pennsylvania’s legislature has considered several bills aimed at amending both the civil and criminal statute of limitations for child sex abuse. Some of those bills were passed. One of them was passed in response to a Philadelphia Grand Jury Report 10 years ago which found that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia covered up multiple reports of priests abusing children. In response, PA’s criminal statute of limitations was expanded to allow victims of child molestation to file criminal charges by their 50th birthday. That amendment became effective August 27, 2002, and only applies to those who turned 18 after that date.
The civil statute of limitations, which gives victims the ability to file civil lawsuits, was also amended at the same time. Effective August 27, 2002, victims of child molestation, who turned 18 on or after that date, have until their 30th birthday to file a civil lawsuit.
The problem with both of Pennsylvania’s criminal and civil statute of limitations laws is that they do not take into effect the simple reality that victims of child sex abuse often wait many years, decades even, to come forward. It’s not uncommon for someone to be well into adulthood, before they can even begin to process what occurred. For many, memories of the abuse are suppressed. For instance, someone who was sexually abused as a child by a trusted family friend, teacher or religious figure, may not even remember that they were abused. Some event later in life may trigger the memory.
Unfortunately, the Pennsylvania legislature has been slow to take any additional action. Both the criminal and the civil statute of limitations should be eliminated altogether, effective immediately. There is no criminal statute of limitations for murder in Pennsylvania. Child sex abuse is arguably more serious than murder. Speak to any victim of child sex abuse and you will get a sense for just how heinous child sex abuse is and how the effects are life-changing, in the worst ways. Some victims of child sex abuse, especially those who were abused by a priest or religious/clergy member, will tell you that what they experienced felt like being murdered.
In addition, the legislature should open a civil window of two years. This would allow victims whose cases were previously time-barred to bring civil lawsuits. Such a law has already been passed in other states including Delaware, California, Hawaii and Georgia, to name a few.
In one case, our firm had the honor of representing a man who was sexually abused by a family friend who went on to become a state court judge in Delaware. Because of the special window, he was able to file a civil lawsuit (the criminal statute of limitations had expired). One of this man’s main concerns was the fact that the judge handled juvenile cases, and so he felt he had no choice but to seek justice. The case was successful. The judge admitted to the abuse. He was removed from the bench and disbarred. He also agreed to pay an undisclosed sum to the plaintiff. This case absolutely shows that these types of civil windows are successful and should be passed. Hopefully, Pennsylvania will join the growing list of states to take victims’ rights seriously.
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