Two-year ‘window’ for abuse lawsuits gets new support in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania state capitol Pennsylvania state capitol/ Zack Frank/Shutterstock

A bill that could expand child sex abuse lawsuits in the state of Pennsylvania has received new support in the state legislature, signaling its possible passage after more than two years of unsuccessful efforts.

The proposed legislation, House Bill 951, lifts some sovereign immunity protections in child sex abuse cases for public schools and institutions. It creates a two-year window for lawsuits to be filed in old cases where the statute of limitations had already expired.

Survivors of abuse may sue their perpetrator or the institution that contributed to the abuse through negligence.

Democratic state Rep. Mark Rozzi, who says he was abused by a priest at age 13, introduced the bill. The state Senate Judiciary Committee voted 11-3 on Wednesday to approve an amended form of the bill. Now that it has received new support, supporters are hopeful that the bill could pass the legislature.

The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and other groups had previously voiced concerns about whether abuse victims would have the equal ability to sue public institutions for alleged abuse. The bill partially lifts sovereign immunity for public institutions.

In August 2018, the state published a 300-page grand jury report on clergy sex abuse concerning the state’s six dioceses. The report identified more than 1,000 alleged victims of 300 credibly accused priests, during the time period of 1947 until 2017.

As many of the cases of alleged abuse were decades old, the report recommended a legal two-year window for new lawsuits to be filed, in cases where the statute of limitations had long expired.

Following the report, state lawmakers tried several times to enact such a window.

In March, Republicans declined to present a constitutional amendment on the matter in an emergency process. The administration of Gov. Tom Wolf had failed to procure the necessary public advertisements for a proposed constitutional amendment, thus requiring an emergency motion from lawmakers to allow for a referendum on the amendment. Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar ultimately resigned because of the administration’s error. 

Other states have established time “windows” for new lawsuits to be filed in old abuse cases. New York’s window under the Child Victims Act was extended until August 14, 2021, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic; the law has resulted in at least 2,800 lawsuits against Catholic institutions in the state.

Some dioceses in New York have been named in hundreds of lawsuits, with the dioceses of Buffalo, Rochester, Rockville Centre, and Syracuse filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization during the process. As of April 8, the Archdiocese of New York was named in more than 700 lawsuits, the Brooklyn diocese was named in more than 570 lawsuits, and the Buffalo diocese was named in nearly 500 lawsuits.

Rhode Island, meanwhile, extended the statute of limitations for abuse cases and is considering an expansion of liability in abuse cases, for institutions accused of negligence. Other states with temporary windows for lawsuits include California, Arizona, Montana, Hawaii, and North Carolina. The District of Columbia has also opened a temporary window, and Vermont has allowed lawsuits in old abuse cases to be brought forth indefinitely.

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