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Pennsylvania lawmakers are working to correct a procedural error, which would allow voters to decide this spring on a referendum that may extend the statute of limitations for child sexual assault, allowing individuals to pursue previously time-barred claims against the Catholic Church and other entities that have covered up and suppressed information for decades.
Over the past few years, there has been growing pressure to extend the statute of limitations in Pennsylvania and several other states to allow individuals sexually assaulted or abused as children to pursue claims against perpetrators and organizations which enabled the abuse, even when the events occurred decades earlier.
There has been a growing recognition that large institutions like the Catholic Church, Boy Scouts of America and other organizations have actively covered up and suppressed information about credit claims of abuse for decades, to prevent survivors of the abuse from pursuing legal actions.
On February 1,the Pennsylvania Department of State revealed it failed to advertise a proposed state constitutional amendment which would open a two year “window” in the statute of limitations for the pursuit of previously barred claims. Kathy Boockvar, Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the state’s highest election official, stepped down on February 5 as the result of the revelations.
As a result of the procedural error, the proposed constitutional amendment may not have been presented to voters until 2023. However, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives has now passed an emergency constitutional amendment, which would allow the issue to be placed back on the ballot in time for the primary elections in May 2021.
If the measure passes the state senate, and the referendum is later approved by voters, then Pennsylvania would join a growing number of other states who have lengthened the time allowed to victims of child sexual abuse to file a civil lawsuit, including an almost immediate two-year period where statute of limitation laws do not apply to such claims, regardless of when the alleged incidents happened.
New York, New Jersey, California and a number of other states have enacted similar legislation to extend the child sex abuse statute of limitations in recent years, allowing survivors additional time to present their claims due to coverup activities and inherent issues which may prevent individuals from pursuing claims until later in life.
Emergency constitutional amendments are rare in Pennsylvania, with this being only about the fourth time such a move has been used since the 1970s, if approved. It is meant to be used in situations where the safety or welfare of the commonwealth is endangered and requires a rapid response.
While some reports indicate Republicans in the state senate are prepared to approve the motion passed by the Democrat-led state house, some expressed caution, saying they would have to see the details of what the state house sends over. However, some observers say this move may lead the amendment to be legally challenged in the future.
Pennsylvania was the focus of renewed interest in institutional coverups of child sexual abuse, when an investigation into the Catholic Church a few years ago revealed widespread problems and coverups.
In August 2018, a grand jury report identified at least 90 Catholic priests that faced credible claims of sex abuse in the Pittsburgh area, but other victims were never informed about the allegations, as the Catholic Church engaged in a cover-up that spanned decades and shifted priests to other locations.
That report indicated the Catholic Church of Pennsylvania covered up sexual assaults involving priests who abused more than 1,000 victims, mostly children, over the course of 70 years. After 90 of those priests were identified, it sparked investigations by the Justice Department and states’ attorneys general nationwide.