Dear members of the Pennsylvania Senate:
The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (PCAR) and the PA network of rape crisis centers have served children, men, and women impacted by sexual harassment, abuse, and assault in all of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties since 1975. We provide evidence-based prevention programs to communities throughout the Commonwealth. It is with this collective voice and from these years of advocating on behalf of sexual assault victims that we urge you to pass SB 261 upon concurrence; with the House amendments that added the one-time, two year window for victims whose options to seek civil remedies have already expired.
PCAR applauds the Senate for its commitment to eliminating the criminal statute of limitations and extending the civil statute going forward. This will help tomorrow’s victims. But we must also help yesterday’s victims. They matter just as much. We know this is a priority we all share. PCAR strongly believes a retroactive window must be established in addressing this shared priority.
“Window” legislation has been recommended by multiple Grand Juries and is reinforced repeatedly in the news as case after case of child sexual abuse surfaces in our Commonwealth. In fact, without a retroactive window, 299 out of 301 of the victims that testified before the Grand Jury have no legal recourse. The window must be one of the options established for victims who have too long been blocked from justice and silenced.
Delayed reporting of child sexual abuse is the norm and should be expected. Our laws must reflect this reality. PA’s current statutes of limitations impose arbitrary time limits on victims’ options for justice and healing. These limits do not provide the time victims need to heal from sexual trauma, come forward, and pursue justice.
Statute of limitations reform—including the two-year window—is in the best interest of victims and public safety. People who sexually abuse children often offend against multiple victims over a lifetime. Making the identities of perpetrators known through civil actions—enabled by a retroactive window—is not only a matter of justice for victims; it is a matter of public safety. It would strengthen Pennsylvania’s ability to protect children, women, and men throughout the state from repeat offenders.
Some people worry the retroactive window may be unconstitutional. However, the Attorney General and constitutional law experts have argued the merits of its constitutionality. Seven states have enacted window legislation, most commonly a two-year period, to allow victims previously barred from filing civil suits an opportunity in which they could file, and those laws have been upheld. Additionally, eight states have no statutes of limitations for civil child sexual abuse cases. Given the range of legal opinions on constitutionality, the urgency we are experiencing here in Pennsylvania, and what we are hearing from victims, PCAR’s position is that the law should be passed and the Pennsylvania courts should be the ones to rule on the issue of constitutionality.
I understand that a “victim compensation fund” is being discussed as an alternative way to provide relief to victims of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. PCAR strongly urges that this option only be considered in addition to the window legislation. Most sexual abuse victims were not victimized by members of any religious order, and we adamantly believe reform is needed for ALL victims in Pennsylvania. It remains unclear how much would be available in said fund, for how many victims, and for how long. A victims’ fund would provide no relief to victims abused in settings outside of the Catholic Church, nor would it enable individuals to have their day in court, hold individuals and institutions accountable, or enhance public safety.
Some have expressed concerns that a retroactive window could bankrupt institutions by way of civil reparations and attorney fees. In reality, institutions have been paying attorney fees and private settlements for many years; a narrow, two-year window for civil claims is not likely to result in bankruptcy. Victims and their loved ones have carried the financial and emotional toll of child sexual abuse for decades. PCAR believes it is time for our legislature, institutions, and communities to help shoulder that burden and carry the weight of responsibility where it is due.
In the wake of the Grand Jury report and Cosby sentencing, we are in the spotlight of the nation. Most importantly, we are in the spotlight of a victims’ movement—a movement of survivors who are looking to our legislature for support, answers, and legislation that is responsive to their experiences and needs. This movement of victims is right here in Pennsylvania. They are watching closely and waiting intently as our legislature considers this critical legislation. In fact they were here marching in Harrisburg on September 24th to lend their voices and courage to this conversation.
We urge you to pass legislation that honors the voices and experiences of these victims. We ask you to use your positions of leadership to pass SB 261 and support victims in seeking justice through the one-time, retroactive window, and help Pennsylvania set an example for the nation.
Thank you for your consideration.
Karen Baker, CEO