By State Rep. Tarah Toohil (R-Luzerne)
The grand jury report detailing the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests released last week by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro is horrifying and beyond criminal. The fact that victims were coerced to protect the institution is heart-wrenching.
We need to now rip off the cloak of silence and address the civil and criminal statute of limitations for legal claims relating to childhood sexual abuse. The grand jury itself proposed changes in order to hold perpetrators accountable in court for their heinous acts.
There are two different statutes of limitations to consider: one pertains to criminal prosecutions, and the other to civil lawsuits. Under current Pennsylvania law, victims of childhood sexual abuse have until age 30 to bring a civil lawsuit, and until they are 50 to seek a criminal prosecution. Because of the egregiousness of this particular crime, and the profound psychological harm it causes, the civil statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse is far longer than for most other civil claims. In fact, in comparison with other states, Pennsylvania already has one of the most generous civil statutes of limitations in the nation.
Some express concern that there is any time limitation at all for such claims, but others assert that there can be important reasons for statutes of limitations. With the passage of time, evidence – not just of guilt, but also of innocence – erodes and deteriorates. Memories fade, witnesses die or move away, and records are lost or destroyed. At some point, it can become next to impossible for an innocent person to defend against false accusations. Statutes of limitations, therefore, play a role in making sure that courts can find the truth behind the claims brought before them.
Legislation has been introduced in both the House of Representatives and Senate which would amend the statutes of limitations in childhood sexual abuse cases. One such bill, Senate Bill 261
, has already passed the Senate and is currently before the House for consideration. This bill extends the civil statute of limitations for sexual abuse lawsuits to age 50, while abolishing the statute of limitations altogether for criminal prosecutions of those acts.
I expect the bill to be called up for consideration by the whole House after we return in September. These is a high possibility that the legislation will be amended to eliminate the statutes of limitations for both criminal and civil claims and allow a 2-year window for past victims to file a civil suit. The input of victims, their families and our entire community will be extremely important during this process.
Child sexual abuse is one of the most vile and evil crimes that can be committed. It is my hope that through legislation we can take further steps to help hold those who perpetrate such these heinous acts accountable.
Please contact my office with your questions and concerns regarding the grand jury report.
Representative Tarah Toohil
Pennsylvania House of Representatives
Contact: Rep. Toohil’s Office