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Pennsylvania Just Made It Easier for Child Sex Abuse Victims To Sue Their Attackers

It's been more than a year since a Pennsylvania grand jury found that Catholic priests had abused hundreds of children in the state and covered it up for decades.

by Carter Sherman
Nov 27 2019, 4:03pm

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More than a year after a Pennsylvania grand jury found that Catholic priests had abused hundreds of children in the state and covered it up for decades, Pennsylvania has passed a series of laws to overhaul its childhood sex abuse laws.

On Tuesday, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf signed a bill to eliminate the statute of limitations on prosecuting future cases of childhood sex abuse and to let survivors sue their abusers up until their 55th birthday. State law previously gave Pennsylvanians who were sexually abused as children until their 30th birthday to sue.

Wolf also signed bills that will further penalize people who are legally required to report allegations of abuse but fail to do so and will exempt conversations about abuse with law enforcement from non-disclosure agreements.

But the package of laws did not include one key provision that many sex abuse survivors and their advocates had hoped for: a so-called lookback window, which typically opens up a one-time opportunity for survivors to pursue civil lawsuits against their abusers and the institutions they belonged to — regardless of whether the statute of limitations has expired. The grand jury’s report had recommended that legislators open up a two-year lookback window.

So far in 2019, eight states and Washington, D.C. have passed some kind of lookback window, according to Child USA, an anti-child abuse group.

"We wait in hope that at some point in time between now and the early part of 2021, that a true window legislation be passed so that survivors can have access to court," Mike McDonnell, who heads the Philadelphia branch of Survivors Networks of those Abused by Priests, told NPR.

READ: Inside the Catholic Church’s plan to quietly pay survivors of sex abuse

State lawmakers have approved a proposed constitutional amendment to enact a lookback window. But it takes more than their sign-off to amend Pennsylvania’s constitution: Both the state house and senate will once again have to approve the measure next year, and then voters will have to weigh in.

That’s too long to ask survivors to wait, according to Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

“By waiting, we are robbing the very victims who made this day possible, we are robbing them of the only closure before them,” Shapiro told the Associated Press.

READ: A tidal wave of sex abuse lawsuits is about to hit New York’s Catholic churches and Boy Scouts

The revelations in Pennsylvania’s grand jury report shocked the nation. Hailed as the most comprehensive government look at the Catholic sex abuse crisis in the United States, the report found that more than 300 priests had abused 1,000-plus children over seven decades.

“We saw these victims; they are marked for life. Many of them wind up addicted, or impaired, or dead before their time,” the grand jury wrote.

In the report’s wake, officials in more than a dozen states announced that they would investigate their local Catholic dioceses, and the Justice Department reportedly subpoenaed records from Pennsylvania dioceses in a federal probe thought to be the first of its kind.

Cover image: Victims of clergy sexual abuse and their family members react as Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

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Child Abuse
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