Hours after Attorney General Josh Shapiro joined abuse survivors for a rally Monday, the state Senate majority leader said there are no plans to move legislation to allow child sex abuse survivors to sue organizations that cover up for predators.
Shapiro re-affirmed that he believes opening a window for such lawsuits would be legal.
He added that Ward’s unwillingness to hold a vote on House Bill 951, which passed the state House by a 149-52 vote in April, is “pathetic” because Senate leaders are unwilling to buck lobbyists for the Catholic Church and the insurance industry.
That legislation would open a two-year window for survivors to sue even if the statute of limitations in their cases has expired.
Advocates for survivors argue that the statute of limitations is unfair to child abuse survivors who often go decades before they feel capable of coming forward to seek justice.
“It’s Constitutional, plain and simple,” Shapiro said.
Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland County, said that the assertion that her decision is being dictated by lobbyists is “untrue” and said that she thinks the state Constitution bars the state from changing the penalty for a crime retroactively.
“People who do that to kids are terrible human beings,” Ward said, “Like it or not, they still have the rights that were afforded them. So I don’t find that to be weak, I find that to be a position of strength,” she said.
Ward said she believes that the strongest legal course would be for the state to change the Constitution to open a window for lawsuits by amending the state Constitution.
The move to change the Constitution was on track to be on the ballot in the May primary election but the Department of State bungled the public notice requirement. As a result, the Wolf Administration determined that the process had to start over and now the earliest the Constitutional change can take effect is 2023.
Advocates for survivors joined Shapiro Monday to argue that the state doesn’t need to wait to change the Constitution and asserted that the change can be made through a conventional piece of legislation.
Marci Hamilton, founder and CEO of ChildUSA, a Philadelphia-based think tank focusing on child sex abuse and statute of limitations laws, said that 18 states have passed legislation opening windows for lawsuits by abuse survivors during the 16 years since a window bill was first introduced in Pennsylvania in 2005.
That includes 12 states — including New York and New Jersey — that opened windows for lawsuits after a 2018 grand jury report revealed evidence that the Catholic Church had concealed abuse by 300 priests over decades.
While the priest abuse scandal inspired much of the push to change the law to allow for lawsuits by adult survivors of abuse, advocates said that it’s clear that opening such windows reveals abuse by predators in myriad walks of life.
When Delaware opened a window for lawsuits by abuse survivors, it brought forth survivors of a pediatrician who’d been molesting children, Hamilton said.
Grace French, a survivor of abuse by disgraced sports doctor Larry Nasser, said that few people understand how common abuse of young athletes is.
Young athletes may be afraid to identify abuse while they are competing out of concern that it would jeopardize their athletic careers and prompt colleges to drop their scholarships, she said.
“Even though 13 percent of elite athletes experience sexual abuse, The U.S. Center for SafeSport recently reported that 93 percent of sexual violence goes unreported,” French said.