Their stories – harrowing as they are – have become familiar across the commonwealth over the years.
Five sisters sexually assaulted and exploited by the family priest. A young boy – now a man fighting for justice – brutally raped by a Harrisburg Catholic school teacher. A girl repeatedly raped by a family member, another by her music teacher. A boy and his classmates raped by priests at their Philadelphia Catholic school.
Those were the gut-wrenching stories shared on Monday as dozens of victims and advocates urged the Pennsylvania Senate to advance legislation that would provide a temporary period of time for victims – all of them now adults and out of legal recourse – to seek justice.
The state Senate this week is poised to consider a bill that would pave the way for victims timed-out of the legal system to get a two-year reprieve to file civil claims – facing predators in court, or at the very least, the institutions that turned a blind eye to their abuse. The state House of Representatives has already approved the bill.
“How much longer do we have to wait,” said Patty Fortney, a victims of clergy sex abuse. “Please hear us. The time is up. Victims’ lives cannot wait any longer.’
The measure, which the House approved this month by a vote of 149-52, would allow lawsuits outside the statute of limitations against both public and private entities. Some legislators are aiming to change the state law while also pursuing an amendment to the state constitution.
Efforts to provide a window for victims to sue have been defeated time and again. Pennsylvania is the only northeast state that hasn’t fully reformed child sex crimes to offer retroactive windows that would temporarily lift expired statute of limitations, allowing victims to seek recourse in civil court.
“Senators, your greatest duty is to protect the children of this commonwealth,” said Patrick Duggan, who delivered an emotion account of his brutal rape as a boy at the hands of his teacher from St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School in Harrisburg.
The midday rally coincided with the return of lawmakers to the legislative session. Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who led the 2018 grand jury investigation, attended the rally, along with several Democratic lawmakers, including state Sens. Steve Santarsiero, Judith Schwank, Katie Muth, Tim Kearney, Maria Collett and Anthony Williams.
“It’s time for justice,” said Marci Hamilton, a University of Pennsylvania law professor and one of the country’s leading advocates for statute of limitations reform. “We are close and we are hopeful.”
Hamilton called on Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman and Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward to advance House Bill 951, which would open a two-year retroactive window.
Almost all of the victims standing on the Capitol steps have been here before. Since 2005, they and their families, as well as advocates have been fighting for this narrow opportunity at justice, momentum sustained in the wake of grand jury investigations, but only to fall short at the end at the legislative level.
“Please hear us,” said Fortney, a member of the Harrisburg-area family of five sisters who were all sexually abused by a priest. In 2018, she testified before the 40th Statewide Grand Jury that documented the widespread and systemic sexual abuse of thousands of minors by Catholic priests.
The Fortneys, like so many of the other victims and their families, have become the foot soldiers in Pennsylvania fighting to fully reform the law.
“It took 16 years in New York,” Hamilton said. “Let’s cap it at 16 in Pennsylvania.”
In 2005, the first of several grand jury investigations – that one out of Philadelphia, began the uncovering of decades of clergy sex abuse across the Roman Catholic faith community in Pennsylvania.
In 2016, a grand jury out of Altoona-Johnstown and again in 2018, a statewide grand jury, published the results of findings detailing decades of abuse of thousands of minors. Jurors consistently recommended that a retroactive window be open to allow these childhood victims – now all adults – a chance at justice.
Since 2002, 37 states, plus the federal government, have extended statute of limitations. An additional 21 states have revised those laws and 14 have completely eliminated statute of limitations, something Pennsylvania did last year, after years of fighting for that reform.
The bill before the Senate is part of a two-prong approach to reform. Last month, lawmakers took the first step to amend the state Constitution to create such a window. But lawmakers must also pass the constitutional amendment in the next legislative session before it would go to voters for final approval, meaning it wouldn’t take effect until 2023 at the earliest. So lawmakers and advocates are moving to create a window for victims through regular legislation.
Kathryn Robb, the executive director of CHILD USAdvocacy, implored Senate members to stand with survivors and not be co-conspirators in the abuse of thousands of minors.
“It’s either or,” she said. “You gotta pick a side.”
Duggan, whose son took his own life after years of dealing with his father’s emotional wounds, implored Senate members to pass the pending reform and send it to Gov. Tom Wolf.
“Now is the time for senators to quit shuffling papers around their desks,” Duggan said. “Extraordinary evil requires extraordinary results. Justice delayed is justice denied.”
Shapiro told the gathering that the Senate had enough votes to pass the legislation. He commended victims and advocates for unleashing a national and global reckoning that has reached as far as the Vatican.
“Your voices have led to that change,” he said.
Shapiro said he was confident that the measure has the backing of enough GOP lawmakers in the Senate to push it through all the way.
“The votes are there to put the bill on the governor’s desk, even by week’s end,” he said.
In a written statement, Santarsiero said:
“Throughout the debate around a two year window for childhood sexual assault survivors to sue their abusers, we have heard moving testimony about the trauma these victims experienced and the solace that would come from being able to seek justice in court. We can, and must, act today to ensure there is no further delay in bringing victims of childhood sexual assault closer to the justice they have been denied for too long. They must have their day in court.”
The commonwealth earlier this year was on track to put the question to voters in May, but a blunder by the Department of State kicked the effort back to square one. Earlier this year, the Wolf administration announced it had failed to advertise the constitutional amendment as required.
The Legislature had to restart the lengthy process. The misstep also led then-Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar to resign from her post.