Pennsylvania has had a tortured history when it comes to justice for child molestation victims. Multiple grand jury investigations have revealed that Catholic priests sexually abused hundreds of children over the last 50 years. Dioceses in Philadelphia and Altoona-Johnstown were raked over the coals by grand juries which found that church officials routinely protected priests who were known abusers. Currently, additional dioceses in Pennsylvania are under investigation for hiding child molesting priests, and grand juries are expected to reveal the same pattern of abuse.
The real tragedy revealed by these grand jury investigations is in that the vast majority of cases, the criminal and civil statute of limitations had expired. Thus, predators are free to abuse more children, and we know that old age doesn’t stop predators from sexually molesting children.
The Pennsylvania legislature took some action in response to public outrage at the sheer number of cases of child molestation by priests. Most recently, the legislature has been considering HB 1947, or variations of it. If passed in its original form, its amendments would be some of the most expansive, pro-victim laws in the U.S. Among other things, HB 1947 would enact a special retroactive law, reviving old lawsuits which were out of time under older statute of limitations laws. Cases that occurred 20, 30 and 40 years ago could be revived. This type of “civil window,” usually 2 years in duration, has been passed in several other states including Delaware, Minnesota and California.
However, like similar bills which have come before it, HB 1947 faced considerable opposition from church groups and the insurance lobby. There were reports of priests outing members of the House who had voted to pass HB 1947. Parishioners were urged to contact these legislators. One house member from Delaware County found his name printed in a church bulletin at his local parish, along with misinformation about the bill. See philly.com, Priests, parishes target Pa. legislators who backed sex-abuse bill.
After HB 1947 was passed in the House, the Senate Judiciary Committee essentially gutted HB 1947. After testimony from then Attorney General Kathleen Kane’s office about the civil window’s purported unconstitutionality, HB 1947 passed in the Senate without the critical civil window language.
As of June, the House Rules Committee has been reviewing HB 1947. Earlier this week, House leaders indicated they will reinsert the civil window language and send it back to the Senate. The key difference is that Kane’s predecessor, Bruce Beemer, has indicated that the civil window would be constitutional. The House doesn’t have much time. The clock is running out in the 2015-2016 session.
October 27, 2016 Legislative Update: Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives has done all it can to pass House Bill 1947. The bill died after being gutted by the Senate Judiciary Committee. House members have vowed to begin the process again in the next session.