HARRISBURG — Survivors of child sex abuse urged the Senate judiciary committee to move legislation to open a window of time to allow lawsuits in cases beyond the existing statute of limitations.
Jennifer Storm, the state’s victim advocate said she compiled a summary of witness testimony because lawmakers had received an “overwhelming” number of calls from victims interested in speaking before the committee.
“As one can imagine, there were scores of survivors calling,” Storm said. “This has been a day longed for. No other hearing has been held where the voices of survivors were not only allowed but encouraged.”
By Wednesday, more than 50 survivors had contacted the victim advocate to share their thoughts for the hearing, Storm said.
All of the survivors who contacted her office support eliminating the statute of limitations moving forward and “the vast majority” would like the state to open a window to allow lawsuits in cases beyond the existing statute of limitations, Storm said.
“Enough is enough. We do need to act, I’m sorry you have to keep doing this,” said state Sen. Larry Farnese, D-Philadelphia, the Democratic chair of the committee.
But Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne County, said committee members will review all the information generated by Wednesday’s hearing before deciding what to do.
Republicans in the state Senate have resisted efforts to change the law to allow for lawsuits in cases beyond the existing statute of limitations out of concern that it would violate the state Constitution. State Sen. Wayne Langerholc, R-Cambria County, said he thinks those concerns are misplaced and that the state Constitution would allow the state to open a window for lawsuits.
Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming County, another member of the judiciary committee, said that with the amount of effort Baker put into identifying people to testify and examine the issue from all angles, he thinks the Senate will take a serious look at what can be done.
Much of that attention will be focused on whether window to allow for civil lawsuits should be opened, he said.
"We have people who really deserve compensation, they’ve been injured,” he said. Yaw said that if the state does move to allow lawsuits in cases where the statute of limitations has expired, it’s likely that legal challenges would delay any help for victims.
"I think we were right not to have a knee-jerk reaction” after the grand jury reports came out, Yaw said.
The hearing came six months after the state House passed legislation that would amend the state Constitution to open a window for civil lawsuits. It also comes almost a year since the state Senate adjourned last fall after failing to act on the statute of limitations reform, despite intense pressure by advocates for the change in the wake of a series of grand jury reports about abuse by Catholic priests across the state.
Under current Pennsylvania law, adult victims have to file a lawsuit before they turn 30. Advocates have argued this is inadequate because most survivors don’t feel capable of coming forward to seek justice until later in adulthood.
“'I’ll never get caught.’ That’s what my abuser said with a smirk on his face. So far, the monster is right,” Mary McHale said, who said she was assaulted by a priest in Reading. She’s been among the advocates lobbying for changes in the statute of limitations law. “I’m exhausted. I’m disgusted, watching the system fail.”
After the hearing, McHale said she’s not sure whether the hearing will make a difference.
“We’ll see,” she said.
Shaun Dougherty, an adult survivor who was abused by a Johnstown priest, was more pessimistic. “If they had the spine to do it, they’d have done it by now,” he said.
In addition to the victims, the committee also heard testimony from legal experts and representatives of the church groups.
Marci Hamilton, CEO and academic director of Child USA, a Philadelphia-based advocacy group tracking statute of limitations reforms nationally, said opening a window to allow lawsuits is needed despite the creation of compensation funds Catholic dioceses are using to settle claims with abuse victims.
Eliminating the potential of lawsuits means that victims “are not just silenced, they don’t have any weapons,” she said. “Compensation funds failed the truth test because no truth comes out.”
Compensation funds also don’t do anything to help the survivors of abuse who were victimized by people other than priests, said Jennifer Goetz, a survivor of abuse perpetrated by Johnstown pediatrician Jack Barto.
Goetz said she went public with her story after Barto was arrested for molesting other victims. She said she wanted to lend credibility to the other victims’ stories but “there was no justice for me.”
Langerholc said he’s glad the hearing directed some attention to other victims of abuse because so much of the attention has been focused on victims of priest abuse.
“The one thing that was important, that resonated was that the issue has been framed in a way that it’s all about the Catholic Church,” he said. “We need to address it at all levels” to help victims regardless of who committed the abuse, Langerholc said.
Bruce Wenger, an attorney who represented the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, after Minnesota opened a window to allow lawsuits, said that litigation takes longer than the compensation fund process and much of the settlement money ends up going to attorneys instead of victims.
Minnesota passed the law to allow lawsuits in 2013 and victims still haven’t received their full settlement payouts, he said. Seventeen victims of abuse died before they got compensation from their lawsuits, he said.
“Plaintiffs’ attorneys representing the claimants received 33 percent to 40 percent of the total amounts awarded to claimants plus expenses,” Wenger said. “All told, plaintiffs’ attorneys likely received payments exceeding $60 million.”