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February 24, 2023

Child sex abuse victims' window to file civil suits in Pa. could be longer as bill passes in state House again

The proposed measure would amend the state constitution to give survivors two years to sue their abusers. This the fourth time the House passed the bill.

Government Child Abuse
Pennsylvania House Amendment The Office of Governor Tom Wolf/Flickr

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives approved a constitutional amendment that would create a two-year window for survivors of childhood sexual abuse to file civil lawsuits against their abusers and any institution that covered it up.

Survivors of childhood sexual abuse could soon file civil lawsuits against their attackers, regardless of how long ago the abuse took place.

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives voted to approve a constitutional amendment that, if passed by the state Senate and approved by voters, would create a two-year window for survivors to file suits against their abusers, even if the attacks occurred past the state's statute of limitations. That limit is generally 12 years.

The 161-40 vote came down during Friday's special session after the House was adjourned for nearly two months due to partisan gridlock. House Speaker Mark Rozzi, a Democrat from Berks County, said when he was elected to the position in January that he would not vote on any other legislation until the constitutional amendment was approved. Rozzi has spoken publicly about being abused by a Catholic priest when he was a boy.

Rozzi spent much of January and February traveling across the state and meeting with members of the public to discuss ways to end the partisan gridlock and pass the measure in support of childhood sexual abuse victims. As a result, the speaker introduced a separate but similar bill that would create a two-year window for child sexual abuse lawsuits through legislation, not a constitutional amendment. 

Both bills were passed by the House on Friday, and will be brought to the state Senate next week. 

“Might I remind everybody in this chamber, when you think about these children being sexually assaulted, being raped, that you put yourself in my position as a 13-year-old boy being raped in the shower,” Rozzi said during Friday’s session. “Do you think I knew what the statute of limitations was? And that my statute of limitations was two years? That’s why we’re giving these two years back to these victims. And they sure as hell deserve them."

In addition to allowing survivors to file civil lawsuits against their abusers, the amendment would allow people to file lawsuits against any institution that they allege covered up the abuse — including public school districts or other government entities.

Opponents to the amendment, like Rep. Eric Nelson, a Republican from West Moreland County, believe that allowing survivors to retroactively sue government entities would "decimate public education, skyrocket property taxes and really reshape how we're going to look at Pennsylvania moving forward," he told KYW

The constitutional amendment cannot be enacted until it is approved by both chambers of the state legislature in two consecutive sessions, and then put on the ballot for voters to approve. The House and Senate both passed the constitutional amendment last year, and lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle pledged to prioritize it during this year's session. 

In January, the Republican-controlled state Senate passed the amendment as part of a package of other proposed amendments, including some that lack bipartisan support. Among them are measures that would require voters to show identification at the polls, mandate post-election audits and give lawmakers greater power to disapprove of regulations implemented by the governor. 

Rozzi has repeatedly said that he intends to pass the amendment as a standalone bill. Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman, a Republican from Indiana County, has insisted that the package of amendments will be the final time the Senate votes on this issue, PennLive reported. 

The House and Senate must pass the constitutional amendment in its current form in order for it to advance and appear on the ballot during November's general election. Senate Republicans have not reached out to Rozzi about negotiating on the amendment, and the speaker has not attempted to negotiate with them either, the Inquirer reported earlier this month

"It is imperative that we work together to ensure constitutional amendments for voter identification, legislative review of regulations, election audits, and statute of limitations for child sexual abuse survivors can all be presented to voters," Pittman and Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward said in a joint statement. 

The proposed amendment legislation has passed in the Pennsylvania House four times, counting Friday. In 2019, it was introduced as one of the many responses to an expansive grand jury report that accused more than 300 Pennsylvania priests of child sexual abuse. Grand jurors investigated thousands of allegations of child abuse by clergy in six Pennsylvania dioceses: Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton. 

The amendment was on track to be put on the ballot during the May 2021 primary, having passed consecutive legislative sessions. But the Department of State failed to fulfill its obligation to advertise the proposed amendment, and the process needed to be repeated. 

Rep. Jim Gregory, a Republican from Blair and Huntingdon counties, reintroduced the measure in 2021 in order to restart the process. It passed in the General Assembly in 2021, setting it up for a second passage before appearing as a ballot referendum.