Pennsylvania lawmakers may follow in other states' footsteps and allow sexual assault victims to sue their abusers years after the assault happened and remove the statute of limitations on prosecutions.
Senate Bill 540 would remove the statute of limitations and give victims a two-year window to file civil lawsuits against their abusers in previously expired cases.
The House passed a bill in April that would eliminate the statue of limitations and give victims until they are 55 years old to file a civil lawsuit. The current age is 30 years old.
The bills are under consideration by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which held an emotional hearing last week that included victims of sexual assault and former lawyers with the Catholic Church that said allowing retroactive lawsuits could have a big financial impact on the church.
Michael McDonnell told the committee he was abused by two priests from the time he was 11 until he was 13 years old. The abuse led to addiction and mental health issues, he said. He urged lawmakers to pass legislation and not the proposal for a constitutional amendment found in House Bill 963.
“Since 2003, grand jury reports, from investigations, into every Catholic diocese in the commonwealth have recommended elimination and suspension [of the statute of limitations] or [two-year] window legislation,” McDonnell testified. “A constitutional amendment is an unnecessary delay and denial of justice.”
Getting an amendment to Pennsylvania's constitution passed is a notoriously difficult proposition, requiring that the amendment be approved by two consecutive sessions of the Legislature without any changes, followed by a voter referendum.
Sarah Brooks said she was abused by fellow church members who were Jehovah’s Witnesses. She challenged lawmakers to remove the statute of limitations.
“Stand up for what is right because there is no middle ground,” Brooks said. “You either stand to protect pedophiles or you stand to protect children. So, where do you stand?”
Sen. Larry Farnese, D-Philadelphia, repeatedly told the panel members he was “sorry” and “he didn’t know what else could be said."
Taylor Ecker said, “We’re done with your sorries. We just want change.” She testified she was sexually abused as a child and raped as an adult.
“By denying my right to heal on my terms, on my timeline, you are denying me of my civil liberties and my pursuit of happiness,” Ecker told the panel. “Why do you wish to slow down someone’s joy?”
Other panelists said the impact of lawsuits could cripple nonprofits and the Catholic Church, which is facing accusations from multiple alleged victims. And insurers would likely not cover retroactive claims since some of the parties involved would be deceased.
While Committee Chairman Lisa Baker said the hearing was not to debate the bills, she gave a strong statement at the beginning of the hearing.
“There is no dispute how appalling the patterns of abuse are and have been, how responsible adults conspired to cover up wrongdoing or how organizations and institutions schemed to run the clock out on the ability of victims to secure some measure of justice,” Baker said.
No date has been set for a committee vote.