by Rep. Kristine Howard (D-167)
Just prior to Thanksgiving, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives finally passed HB 962 providing for changing the statute of limitations for victims of sexual abuse in both civil and criminal matters, which I was pleased to vote for and support. My colleague, Mark Rozzi, has been working on this for years, through many political ups and downs and I admire his fortitude and thank him for his work.
In summary, HB 962 eliminates the criminal statute of limitations for child sexual abuse crimes. Under its provisions, victims of abuse will have until age 55 to file civil lawsuits. The bill also removes sovereign immunity in civil claims, meaning that if an institution, secular or religious, has known about child sex crimes, it may be held responsible, even in decades-old child sex abuse cases.
Years ago, I was a volunteer attorney for children in foster care. Before I was elected, I worked for Chester County Children Youth and Families doing investigations of child abuse and neglect. Many of the cases I investigated involved sexual abuse of a child. I learned of terrible things and I will not go into those details here. I will say that sexual abuse does not discriminate. The cases concerned all ages, genders, social circumstances, races, religions and more.
The “alleged perpetrators” were a subset of a universe of everyone who could possibly come into contact with a child. There were teachers, babysitters, coaches, close family members, more distant family members and friends of the family. The abuse I encountered sometimes included instances of child pornography.
What struck me after I had been at CYF for a while was just how unrelenting the volume of cases were, how similar some were and how horribly unique some others were.
I have had to interview children who had been sexually abused by people they trusted, or upon whom they relied, or of whom they were afraid. Some children would talk freely, and some would refuse to talk at all. Some would not remember incidents that had happened in the past. Some would talk later when they had the courage, or the words to describe what had happened to them, or when the alleged perpetrator was no longer in their lives. Sometimes family members were supportive and sometimes they were not. Sometimes their own family members would not believe them.
The rules have been in favor of those who would do harm to children and certainly many have “gotten away” with crimes. The bill we passed will allow victims more time to make their allegations so that they can be evaluated in the judicial process that our society uses.
By no means does this law eliminate the horrors of child abuse. However, in this instance, it is an important step in the right direction. In the case of child abuse, and like so many other issues before our legislature, it is important when sweeping changes are outside of our reach, we take action to make the incremental changes that keep us on a path to a more just, safer and healthier Pennsylvania.
[n.b. the bill has now passed both houses and was signed into law by governor Wolf as Act 87 of 2019.]