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N.Y. law change would deliver abuse survivors day in court, hope to Pennsylvanians

Deb Erdley
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New York on Monday was poised to become the 10th state to temporarily suspend the statute of limitations to provide adult survivors of child sexual abuse an opportunity to sue their abusers.

Child protection advocates said the new law, passed only after a change of leadership in that state’s Senate, is the result of more than a decade of efforts. It will provide adults previously timed out of court by the statute of limitations with a one-year window to file civil suits against their abusers.

The law also extended the time for survivors to file lawsuits from age 23 to age 55 in the future and extended the statute of limitations for most child sexual abuse criminal prosecutions from five to 10 years after a victim turns 18.

In Pennsylvania, “window of opportunity” legislation has stalled in the state Senate twice in the last three years. Child advocates hope New York’s move will revive enthusiasm for change here. Victim advocates and abuse survivors worked relentlessly for change in Harrisburg last year after a statewide grand jury reported rampant allegations of child sexual abuse by clergy in Roman Catholic dioceses across the state over seven decades.

Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations caps lawsuits on child sexual abuse at a survivor’s 30 th birthday. That cap prevented scores of middle aged and older adult victims who came forward for the first time to the grand jury from filing lawsuits against their abusers.

Pennsylvania state Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, testified before the Pennsylvania grand jury about his personal abuse at the hands of a parish priest as a teenager. He has led the charge for change in Pennsylvania for several years. He commended New York lawmakers as he lamented the lack of progress in Pennsylvania, where state Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Brookville, blocked a bill that passed the House last fall.

Scarnati maintained the bill to suspend the statute of limitations would have failed to pass muster with the Pennsylvania constitution. As an alternative, he supported compensation funds local Catholic dioceses offered to underwrite for abuse survivors who sign away any future rights to sue.

“We are the epicenter for child sexual abuse. We’ve had all of these grand juries, Penn State Sandusky and all the Catholic grand juries and school sexual abuse scandals, and New York is going to beat us with a law,” Rozzi said.

Change did not come quickly in New York, said But Marci Hamilton, a University of Pennsylvania law professor and founder and CEO of Child USA, an organization dedicated to strengthening protections for children.

“We have been working for over 15 years to make this a reality in a state where the Catholic Conference held sway, effectively blocking all victims of child sex abuse from obtaining justice. It has taken an army of survivors and advocates to overcome the opposition, but we are finally here at the mountaintop,” Hamilton said.

The New York law passed only after Catholic church leaders, who underwrote compensation funds that weighed more than 1,200 claims from abuse survivors, threw their support behind the law along with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the leaders of the new Democratic majority in the state Senate.

Lawyers who represent child abuse survivors hope the New York law leads lawmakers in states like Pennsylvania to reconsider their stance.

Boston lawyer Mitchell Garabedian represented adult survivors of child sexual abuse in the clergy sexual abuse scandal made famous in the movie “Spotlight” and represents hundreds of abuse survivors in New York. He said the new law there represents a show of “respect and validation” for abuse survivors.

“It is time for the sexual abuse laws in countless states in the country and in the world to catch up to the times and follow the lead of the New York Legislature,” Garabedian said.

Altoona lawyer Richard Serbin won the first high-profile abuse civil trial against a Catholic priest in Pennsylvania 30 years ago and had hundreds of other clients turned away under the statute of limitations. He said the New York law could influence change elsewhere.

“(New York) may impact Pennsylvania and other states. That’s one reason why I don’t want my clients to quickly jump on the compensation bandwagon. Signing a release prevents a survivor from taking advantage of changes to the law,” Serbin said.

Rozzi said he will continue pressing for a law to temporarily suspend the statue of limitations here.

“It is absolutely not going away. We’re working on proposing a good piece of legislation we can all get behind. The compensations funds are a good process for some people, but some people want to go through a court of justice,” Rozzi said. “And what about everyone was abused in schools and elsewhere? They don’t have compensation funds.”

Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, [email protected] or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.