An Opportunity to Be Heard
In 2019, the Pennsylvania legislature eliminated the criminal statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse in any new cases and increased the civil statute of limitations to age 55. Prior to that change, Pennsylvania law only gave survivors until age 30 to sue and strictly limited the time that criminal complaint could occur. This will allow thousands of childhood sexual abuse survivors to seek justice and compensation for the injuries they suffer.
The original proposal for the law also allowed for a two-year window for existing survivors to file lawsuits even if their statute of limitations had already expired. However, the second portion of the law has not yet passed.
The “window of opportunity” legislation, supported by the Governor of Pennsylvania and passed in the House, was stalled in the Pennsylvania Senate due to arguments of unconstitutionality. Advocates for survivors of child sexual abuse attempted to present a constitutional amendment on the May 2021 ballot after gaining approval in both House and Senate but failed to do so for administrative reasons.
Since 2021, multiple measures to open a two-year window have passed one or both houses of congress, however none have become law. Advocates remain hopeful that similar legislation passed or under consideration in New York, New Jersey, and other states, will put pressure on Pennsylvania’s legislative system to give the brave survivors of child sexual abuse, whose claims had expired, the opportunity to tell their stories and seek justice.
Pennsylvania Epicenter of Child Sexual Abuse Exposure
Pennsylvania was the location of one of the first successful civil trials against a Catholic clergy member over 30 years ago, and with the exposure of Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky story, Pennsylvania has become the focus of the child sexual abuse scandal. Since that time, 21 states including Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey have extended the time that child sexual abuse survivors have to seek justice.
The statute of limitations on filing complaints for child sexual abuse has been limited and recent events have suggested that child sexual abuse survivors with expired claims in Pennsylvania may still get their day in court. However, in March of 2022, Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that when challenged, the statute of limitations will continue to be applied as written unless the law changes.
In August of 2018, a Pennsylvania grand jury reported that they had found that thousands of minors may have been abused in multiple Catholic Church parishes and dioceses in the state and a list of over 300 creditably accused priests and clergy was published.
In February of 2021, the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburg announced an award of a total of $19.2 million to settle 224 claims of clergy sexual abuse. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia also paid $44 million to settle 208 claims and hundreds of claims in Harrisburg were settled after being certified through a third-party claims administrator which did not go through the court system. In total, Pennsylvania Catholic Dioceses have reportedly paid out more than $84 million to nearly 600 survivors of child sexual abuse in Catholic churches and facilities in Pennsylvania.
Thousands of cases in Pennsylvania and other states remain to be addressed, particularly cases in which the statute had expired prior to the law change.
Child Sexual Abuse in Other Institutions
While the Catholic Church events may be receiving the most news coverage, child sexual abuse occurs in many other places including:
- Churches and other religious institutions
- Private schools
- Sports teams
- Community Groups
- Foster Homes
- Government facilites
The Boy Scouts have recently come under fire as experts have suggested that Boy Scouts of America may have covered up thousands of cases of sexual abuse. Many survivors are now considering legal action against the Scouts as they, like the Catholic church, may have kept detailed information about abusers and claims against them.
Pennsylvania Clergy Abuse List
In one of the earliest wide-scale attempts to hold the Catholic church accountable, in August 2018, a grand jury convened in Pennsylvania to hear claims of past sexual abuse, A list of 301 priests and clergy members in six Pennsylvania dioceses, who had allegedly abused over 1,000 minors was obtained. The list may not be complete as additional clergy members won the right to keep their names private and many abusers are still undiscovered in churches, private schools, clubs, and other organizations.
Survivors of Sexual Abuse
Unfortunately, many survivors of childhood sexual abuse may face challenges that are lifelong. These include feelings of guilt, shame, depression, and anxiety. Survivors who were abused by clergy, teachers, counselors, coaches, or other trusted adults may be at risk for alcohol and substance abuse, PTSD, suicide, or other mental health disorders.
Childhood sexual abuse survivors may be reluctant to come forward, may have repressed memories or may not be aware of how much trauma they have experienced. Sexual abuse may begin long before the actual “event” as victims are groomed to trust and comply with abusers.
Childhood sexual abuse may include:
- Unwanted touching with or without clothes
- Verbal sexual harassment
- Lewd comments or gestures
- Exposure to pornographic material, images, or videos
- Provision of alcohol or drugs to encourage sexual behavior
- Sexual assault
- Statutory rape
Compensation for Survivors of Pennsylvania Child Sexual Abuse
Pennsylvania survivors of child sexual abuse deserve justice and compensation for the injuries they’ve suffered. In 2014, Pennsylvania increased reporting standards for certain organizations where children have been abused but many survivors may have fallen through the cracks. That may be changing with recent events in Pennsylvania and other states.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg has arranged a fund, known as the Survivor Compensation Program, to pay clergy sexual abuse survivors. A similar program covering 7 out of 8 Pennsylvania Catholic Dioceses was established, including the Philadelphia and Pittsburg dioceses but settlements are individual and private. Thus far, the Catholic Dioceses of Pennsylvania report that they have paid out over $84,000,000 to at least 564 victims. Most recently, in August 2023, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia settled allegations of sexual abuse for $3.5 million after the victim rejected a $400,000 settlement offer and instead opted for litigation.
Taking compensation or services from established funds may prevent survivors from being able to participate in future compensation recovery efforts, even when the laws change in favor of victims’ rights. If you are a survivor of child sexual abuse, you have a right to seek justice and compensation for medical costs, counseling costs, lost wages, pain and suffering, and other issues.
Each case is unique and should be evaluated by a lawyer who is experienced in Pennsylvania child sexual and clergy abuse lawsuits.