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Joseph H. Saunders
| Saunders and Walker

Legislators in the Keystone State have taken major steps this fall to overhaul the state’s criminal and civil statute of limitations governing sexual abuse.  The proposed legislation passed the state House with overwhelming support and is currently in the state Senate Judiciary Committee, which held a hearing on the two bills in early October.

State Representatives Jim Gregory and Mark Rozzi, both sexual abuse survivors, have introduced bills that would be a huge victors for sexual abuse survivors.

Rozzi’s bill would eliminate the statute of limitations for most sexual abuse crimes. Gregory’s bill would amend the state constitution and allow a two-year window for otherwise outdated civil lawsuits against alleged sexual offenders.

There is a “connector” bill that states the two bills must pass or neither will go forward.

Both bills would extend the age of victims who can file charges up to age 55 from the current age of 30. Gregory said that is the age estimated by experts in the field of sexual abuse research that is the oldest at which victims recall their abuse.

It appears there’s reason to think the bills may go forward when the state Senate goes back into session this week.  The bills have the support of Republican leadership and a signal from the powerful Pennsylvania Catholic Conference that they will not oppose the legislation.

The legislation comes on the heels of the closing of the statewide Compensation Fund which each diocese offered to survivors of childhood sexual abuse.  Perhaps more significantly, it comes after the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report led other states like New Jersey and New York to pass reform legislation to deal with the problem of childhood sexual abuse.

The Pennsylvania Grand Jury made specific recommendations that the two pieces of legislation would address.  Two other bills supported by Scarnati that address the other aspects of the grand jury recommendations call for tougher penalties for mandated reporters who don’t report suspected child abuse and provide in the law that confidentiality agreements don’t apply when victims speak with law enforcement.

The Compensation Funds were administered by Attorney Kenneth Feinberg and Camille Biros, except for the Diocese of Greensburg which hired a different firm.  Many advocates believe that the process did not allow enough time for survivors to come forward to make claims.  There are others who have decided to wait and see if the law changes in Pennsylvania so that they are able to bring civil claims against the Catholic Church.  This week we should know whether the “wait and see” approach will pay off.  The proposed two year window would provide survivors time to hire a lawyer and file a lawsuit.  It would also allow for transparency since the litigation process would force the Catholic Church to hand over documents related to the Church’s handling of abuse allegations.  Some rejected the notion of the Compensation Funds on this basis alone.  The Funds allowed the Dioceses to maintain secrecy and withhold crucial documents that were available to the Grand Jury but not the general public.

If you or a loved one were abused by a Catholic priest in Pennsylvania and you did not participate in the Compensation Fund, please call Attorney Joe Saunders, an experienced and compassionate advocate for survivors of sexual abuse.

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