Gov. Wolf vows to press for statute of limitations reform for abuse victims
Gov. Tom Wolf vowed to knock on doors in the capitol when the General Assembly reconvenes next week to press his case for a package of laws directed at child sexual abuse, domestic abuse and sexual harassment.
On Wednesday, Wolf said a confluence of events — including the #MeToo movement, Brett Kavanaugh’s U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings and the findings of the Pennsylvania grand jury that concluded that 301 priests sexually abused more than 1,000 children over decades — underscore the need for increased protections.
“The gut-wrenching grand jury report on sexual abuse and cover-up in the Catholic Church is a stark reminder that our laws are failing too many victims of crime, abuse and harassment,” Wolf said, vowing to add his voice to that of abuse survivors, victim advocates, prosecutors and state lawmakers calling for swift action.
The push comes as lawmakers, who have 10 session days remaining this year, face a midterm election in which all 203 state House seats and half of the state’s 50 Senate seats are up for election.
High on Wolf’s legislative priority list and featured in at least two media campaigns is the creation of a two-year window of opportunity for child sexual abuse victims previously timed out from civil court to file lawsuits against their abusers.
Supporters say the legislation recommended in the August grand jury report on abuse in the Catholic Church would address the dilemma of hundreds of victims who have been barred from court by prior statute of limitations restrictions.
Pennsylvania Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm, a vocal supporter of window of opportunity legislation, said advocates have a unique opportunity in the coming weeks thanks in part to interest triggered by the grand jury report.
“I think there is a tremendous momentum and push that is going to be really hard for the legislature to ignore. We have some amazing people in the House and Senate who have said they are going to take up these four changes,” Storm said.
The House passed a statute of limitations bill in 2016 that included a window of opportunity provision. Citing state constitutional issues, the state Senate, however, did not include such a provision in a bill it sent to the House that year.
State Rep. Mark Rozzi, a Berks County Democrat, testified before the grand jury about his abuse at the hands of a priest. He has vowed the House will send a window-of-opportunity bill back to the Senate. Last week, House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, said he will support a two-year window of opportunity.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church and state Senate Republican leaders came under fire in multi-media campaigns this week designed to push state lawmakers to act as they prepare to return to Harrisburg.
Liz Goldman, a 46-year-old Montgomery County woman, took to the internet Tuesday to tell her tale of abuse at the hands of a public school teacher while in middle school in an effort to build support for a window of opportunity law. Goldman said the website snared 10,000 likes and more than 1,000 shares before her group of abuse survivors agreed to take it down at the request of GOP leaders.
“This is a grassroots effort by a lot of mothers and fathers. It’s about calling out people. It’s about an issue of trust,” she said.
ChildUSA, a national think tank organization dedicated to ending child abuse, took the lead Monday night, airing a searing television ad in which adult survivors of priest sexual abuse look into the camera, following a series of apologies from Catholic bishops. One by one, they calmly state: “We don’t need your apologies.” “We don’t need your prayers.” “What we need is a window to justice.”
University of Pennsylvania law professor and ChildUSA CEO Marci Hamilton, who has long advocated for such legislation, said the ad is another effort to promote change in Pennsylvania.
“We’re making the point that it is too late for apologies to victims. It is time for justice,” Hamilton said.
A spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference declined to comment on the proposals.
Sam Marshall, president of the Pennsylvania Insurance Federation, had no reservations discussing his organization’s opposition to a window of opportunity or what he termed a “revival” law.
Such a law could deliver a serious blow to insurers lacking reserves to cover such costs. Although that is a concern, Marshall said his opposition is based on legal analysts who said the law would not pass muster with the Pennsylvania state constitution.
“The reporting on this makes it seem as if you are either in favor of a revival or you are for protecting pedophiles. That is not the case. We are as horrified by this grand jury’s findings as we were by other grand jury reports. The challenge here is whether a revival is legal, and in Pennsylvania it isn’t, and in that sense it holds out false hope to survivors,” he said.
A victim support fund is a better alternative, Marshall said.
“I think that is a better balanced approach to dealing with victims whose claims are timed out and it would pass constitutional muster,” Marshall said, echoing a proposal Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Brookville previously broached.
The New York Post reported that the New York archdiocese, which launched such a fund in 2016, had paid out $60 million to 278 abuse survivors as of last month.
A spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Senate Republican leadership said officials there are still awaiting an opinion from Attorney General Josh Shapiro as to the constitutionality of a window of opportunity under the state constitution.
“We’re waiting to review his opinion, and we’re open to whatever the House sends us,” Jennifer Kocher said.
Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 412-320-7996, [email protected] or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.