A bill in the Pennsylvania General Assembly would amend the state Constitution to allow more adult victims of childhood sexual abuse to sue their abusers.
Senate Bill 1 would open a two-year retroactive window for lawsuits by victims of sexual abuse who were otherwise time-barred from bringing claims.
Terry Clark president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Council of Children, Youth and Family Services, said in 2019, the state extended the civil statute of limitations for child sexual-abuse victims to file suit, from age 30 to age 55. Clark pointed out the bill would also allow legal action against organizations the Council works with to support victims.
“And this really is where our concern is, because it relates to a person being able to sue institutions,” Clark explained. “Those institutions aren’t just folks like the Catholic churches or Boy Scouts of America. It’s also foster-care providers, adoption providers, residential treatment providers.”
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Daniel Laughlin R-Erie, also includes new, stricter voter ID requirements. Clark noted the proposed amendments would have to pass in two consecutive legislative sessions, before they would be put on the ballot for voters statewide.
Clark added there are concerns opening a two-year window for sexual-abuse claims, referred to as the “look-back time,” may prompt some fraudulent claims. The Council recommended legislators consider a shorter time window of one year instead of two.
“But also establishing parameters around potential defendants,” Clark urged. “That would mean including some type of language that limits the scope to who the perpetrator is; the individual causing the harm being more the individual, versus being the institution itself.”
Clark emphasized his group would also back requiring some level of fact-finding before a claim is filed, including evaluation by a licensed mental-health professional certifying there is a reasonable basis to believe sexual abuse occurred.
“One of the other things is really looking at creating a victim’s compensation fund,” Clark noted. “That’s a fund that would really help victims and their families through that time. That’s the emotional, physical, and traumatic time, it helps ease the financial impact of the services that they might need to heal.”
Other suggestions would be mandatory, structured settlements with specific dollar amounts, and including language in the bill to cap attorney fees, to ensure most of the money in a sexual-abuse settlement goes to meeting the needs of the survivor.