Page published on September 16, 2015; Last updated on October 27, 2016
Laffey, Bucci & Kent is a full service personal injury law firm. Our lawyers handle victim injury cases including sexual abuse and molestation cases against churches, schools, doctors, etc. Firm partner Brian Kent is a former sex crimes unit prosecutor with a passion for helping victims of abuse.
Laws are Often Roadblocks on the Path to Justice
For survivors of child sex abuse, assault and molestation, the path to justice is often long. Most survivors don’t even come to terms with the abuse until well into adulthood. It’s not uncommon for someone in their 30s, 40s or 50s to recognize and verbalize that they were victims of child molestation. Unfortunately, statute of limitations laws often act as a roadblock or complete barrier to justice.
States have begun to amend statute of limitations laws for child sex abuse and molestation cases. Some states have passed special laws that revive previously time-barred lawsuits. Delaware and California have passed such laws which allowed an individual, whose case was barred by the applicable statute of limitations law, to file a civil lawsuit within the specified period, usually 2 years. Basically, these special laws opened specific windows of time which revived child molestation lawsuits. Currently, in the 2015-2016 legislative session, Pennsylvania is considering passing such a window. See discussion below.
Related News: Georgia Opens 2 Year Window Survivors of Child Sex Abuse May File Civil Lawsuits Against Perpetrators (August 3, 2015)
Two Separate Legal Remedies – Criminal & Civil Courts
It’s important to note that survivors of child abuse or molestation generally have two legal remedies: file criminal charges and/or file a civil lawsuit.
These two options are mutually exclusive of each other. An individual may choose to proceed with one or both options. In addition, neither depends on the other. The civil case, for instance, in no way depends on the criminal case. In fact, even if the perpetrator is found “not guilty” in the criminal case, the civil case can still be successful. That’s because the standard of proof is different in criminal and civil cases. In criminal cases, the standard of proof is much higher than in civil cases. Therefore, proving a case in the civil justice system is much easier than in the criminal system.
Pennsylvania’s Statute of Limitations for Civil Child Sex Abuse Lawsuits
Pennsylvania, like many other states, has amended its civil statute of limitations laws for child sex abuse cases. In 2002, the Pennsylvania legislature amended the civil statute of limitations law applicable to child abuse cases. This was due in large part to a well publicized Philadelphia Grand Jury report which found that there was sufficient evidence to proceed with criminal cases against multiple Philadelphia area priests. However, due to statute of limitations laws, the alleged perpetrators were beyond the reach of criminal courts. Get more information about priest and church abuse lawsuits here.
In response, the PA legislature amended both the criminal and civil statute of limitations laws for these cases. These 2002 amendments reflect the most current version of the law, as of October 2016.
Under current law, survivors of child molestation have until their 30th birthday to file civil lawsuits. The criminal statute of limitations is a victim’s 50th birthday. The civil time limit, however, only applies to acts of child sex abuse that occurred after the date the law became effective, August 27, 2002.
For acts of child sex abuse that occurred before August 27, 2002, the statute of limitations varies and depends on the laws in effect on the date of the abuse. Under the pre-2002 version of the law, individuals only had until their 23rd birthday (5 years after reaching the age of 18) to file a lawsuit. Get specific info about these statute of limitations laws here.
As a result of these rather arbitrary time limits, many survivors of child molestation are simply out of luck. This is especially true for those whose abuse occurred decades ago. However, if Pennsylvania’s legislature reforms the statute of limitations law and passes a civil window, these individuals may be able to seek justice. However, if passed, that window would be 2 years like the one in Delaware.
Statute of Limitations Reform in Pennsylvania – Current Status
For the last 5-10 years, the Pennsylvania legislature has considered multiple bills which would amend statute of limitations laws for child molestation lawsuits. In each instance, the bills have failed to pass. Representative Mark Rozzi (D. Berks) has championed such bills. As a victim of priest sex abuse when he was a child, the issue is of particular importance to him. He’s been involved in major media efforts to increase awareness of one bill in particular, HB 1947.
HB 1947 had been under consideration in the most recent legislative session. As of October 25, 2016, the bill died in the House of Representatives. Initially, it passed through the House with great promise. HB 1947 was introduced after yet another major church scandal alleging large-scale sex abuse of 100s of children by priests. Earlier this year, the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown came under fire after a special grand jury found that dozens of priests sexually abused children over a period of 50+ years.
When it comes to victims’ rights, HB 1947 was one of the most expansive bills. There were three main parts of HB 1947.
First, it would have amended both the criminal and civil statute of limitations for cases of child molestation. It would have completely abolished the criminal statute of limitations for most acts of child sexual abuse. With respect to the civil statute of limitations, it would have added another 20 years to the current time, i.e., the victim’s 30th birthday (for acts of child molestation that occurred after August 27, 2002).
Second, it would have created a new law making government entities liable for child molestation in cases where a government employee acted with gross negligence. Under current state law in Pennsylvania, state, city and county governments cannot be sued when a child is sexually abused due to the negligence of a government employee. For example, under state law, a child has no cause of action for being sexually abused in a foster home situation due to negligent placement in the home by county welfare employees. The child, however, may have legal rights under federal constitutional law.
Third, HB 1947 would have created a 2 year window. It would have afforded individuals, whose cases were already time barred, with the opportunity to file lawsuits for the child sex abuse they experienced. This part of HB 1947 was met with significant opposition from two main lobbying groups, church groups and insurance groups.
The Senate caved to such interests and removed this section from HB 1947. It then passed HB 1947 with additional changes and sent it back to the House which took no action on it. Supporters of the bill in the House, including Rep. Rozzi, have vowed to take action in the next legislative session. Learn more about HB 1947’s civil windows in child molestation lawsuits.
Seeking Justice – Negotiating for Change
In a civil lawsuit, the plaintiff has a right to seek any reasonable remedy. In sexual abuse cases, written admissions of guilt may be sought. In addition, policy changes at the institutional level may be arranged. For instance, in a church sexual abuse case, employee training may be mandated or otherwise revised as part of the settlement process.
Claims for Financial Compensation
In addition, survivors of child molestation may seek financial compensation from the perpetrators who committed the acts and other parties, such as an organization or entity which allowed the abuse to occur. Schools, church organizations, youth organizations, etc. may be named as defendants and court ordered to pay financial damages to the plaintiff.
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