Childhood Sexual Abuse: Statute of Limitations Reform
What is the Statute of Limitations (SOL) for civil claims of sexual abuse in Pennsylvania?
A statute of limitations is a law that sets a deadline after an incident or crime occurred for filing a civil lawsuit or bringing criminal charges. Many people who have been sexually abused wait months, years, or decades before talking about what was done to them, let alone making a report to authorities. In light of this reality, in 2019, Pennsylvania extended the length of the SOL for child victims of sexual abuse to bring civil lawsuits against the people who harmed them. Under the new SOL law, child victims of sexual abuse have until they reach age 55 to sue those responsible for the abuse. Victims who were ages 18-23 at the time of the abuse have until age 30 to sue.
What is the “two-year window” (a.k.a. the “retroactive window” or the “revival window”)?
Even though the SOL was made longer in 2019, what about the people who are currently older than 55 or 30 who could have sued if the new SOL had been passed sooner? The proposed solution is to allow a one-time two-year catch-up period during which the SOL would not apply, and all victims could bring suits regardless of their current age or how much time has passed since the abuse. After this two-year period, the regular SOL limits would be enforced. This two-year suspension of the SOL would apply to civil claims only, not to criminal charges.
Has the two-year window become law in Pennsylvania?
No, not yet.
Before 2019, efforts were made in the Pennsylvania General Assembly to create the two-year window by statute. (A statute is an ordinary law voted on and passed by the legislature). The efforts failed, in part because some people believed the law would be unconstitutional under the Pennsylvania Constitution.
As a result, a new approach emerged to create the two-year window by amending the Pennsylvania Constitution. Amending the constitution is a lengthy process that involves two rounds of voting in the General Assembly and then a ballot vote by Pennsylvania voters in a statewide election. The constitutional amendment to create a two-year window was on track to go to Pennsylvania voters in the spring of 2021 but the process was derailed by an administrative error: it was discovered in early 2021 that the Secretary of the Commonwealth did not properly give the public notice of the proposed amendment.
What’s next for the SOL two-year window?
After more than a decade of work on this issue, survivors are outraged and heartbroken that justice will be delayed further. WOAR is working with victims, survivors, advocates, and legislators across the state to seek a resolution. There are three possible options:
1. The constitutional amendment process can be started over, which will take at least until May 2023 to send the proposal to voters on the ballot.
2. The legislature could vote on an emergency constitutional amendment and send the question to voters sooner.
3. The legislature could pass a law (statute) to create the window at any time, and forgo the constitutional amendment route. This path would not require a decision by Pennsylvania voters.
Each of these options has pros and cons, including how long they will take. WOAR recognizes that establishing a window for victims to be able to bring civil claims against those who hurt them is of paramount importance to adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse in Pennsylvania.
What do Pennsylvania voters think?
A survey of 700 likely voters found that 71% of Pennsylvania voters are aware that many adult victims of childhood sexual abuse cannot sue the people or institutions that harmed them because too much time has passed, and 82% of voters support these victims having a two-year period to sue and to seek civil remedies. Click here for the PCAR press release on the poll.
What can I do?
To stay informed, or to get involved in WOAR’s advocacy work, click here.
To learn more about WOAR’s history of advocating for victims and survivors of sexual violence, click here.
Questions? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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