Finding Civil Justice for Victims of Child Sexual Abuse in Pennsylvania

It seems unbelievable to many people that whether the victims of child sexual abuse can seek justice for the crimes committed against them depends on which state they reside in and where the abuse happened.

To most right-thinking people, child sexual abuse is one of the most heinous crimes and it should not matter whether it happened in Pennsylvania, New York or Alaska – perpetrators should be brought to justice.

Only then can child victims receive some measure of justice for the past wrongs committed against them – and children and their parents can sleep easier knowing that they are less likely to suffer abuse because another predator is behind bars.

Unfortunately, until the statute of limitations law changes here, Pennsylvania children remain at risk from abusers still on the loose and free to carry out more of their terrible crimes.

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“Too late” to claim for child sexual abuse in Pennsylvania

Warning signs of sexually abused children in Pennsylvania

In July 2021, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that an accuser’s claim was too late under the state’s statute of limitations.

The Court threw out a lawsuit from a woman who wanted to recover damages from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown for its part in harboring a priest who allegedly sexually abused her in the 1970s.

Meanwhile, just over the state lines in New York and New Jersey, the laws were changed some time ago to extend the window that victims of child sexual abuse can seek compensation for their abuse.

Almost 25 other states have taken rapid action after well-publicized cases concerning sexual abuse by the clergy in the Catholic Church, the U.S. school system, sports coaches, the Boy Scouts and other youth organizations – but Pennsylvania continues to drag its heels.

While these changes to legislation in other states have not put as many historical perpetrators behind bars as most people would have liked, it has allowed victims to tell their stories, expose their abusers, and shine a light on the extent of the problem through civil lawsuits, which have a lower burden of proof than criminal lawsuits.

It’s fair to say that until recent years, many people across the U.S. had no idea that sexual abuse in the Catholic Church was so widespread. Recent cases have been crucial in exposing the serious nature of the problem and bringing it onto the table to be addressed.

What is “window legislation”?

In most states until recently, the statutes of limitation were notoriously short for victims to file lawsuits against child sexual abusers. This was a particular weakness in the judicial system because the nature of child sexual abuse cases means that many victims are unable or unwilling to come forward and tell their stories until later in life.

Recognizing this, states like New York and New Jersey introduced “window legislation” that extended the statutes of limitation and helped revive claims that previously could not be filed.

CHILD USA (a national think tank working to end child abuse and neglect) and the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) joined forces in these states to create a Survivor’s Tool Kit that help educate survivors of their legal rights.

This has encouraged many thousands of victims to come forward in New York and hundreds in New Jersey, publicly exposing thousands of predators. It is hoped that this is just the beginning and, as time passes, more victims will step forward to tell their stories.

However, despite the success of these campaigns elsewhere, Pennsylvania surprisingly still digs its heels in and refuses to move. That’s very frustrating for many people here.

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Why is Pennsylvania not acting now?

Many people rightly feel that because of the well-publicized scandals here, Pennsylvania should have been one of the first states to introduce the window legislation.

In recent years, we have seen allegations of cover ups of rape and child sexual abuse by Catholic Church leaders, in the school system, and with the Jerry Sandusky case at Penn State.

Introducing the new legislation would not only allow victims to seek some measure of justice, but it would enhance the safety of our children – and what could be more important than that?

Nobody is too sure what the reason is for the delay in introducing new legislation to protect our children’s safety but, unfortunately, money seems to be trumping the pursuit of justice and safety here.

The financial interests of the Catholic Church and the insurance industry, looking after their own interests ahead of those of the public, appear to have been given priority and this needs to change.

While advocate groups continue to put pressure on the state to pass window legislation, so far it has fallen on deaf ears.

The recent case thrown out by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown has brought into sharp focus the need to continue fighting for change and the safety of our children in Pennsylvania.

In addition to the warning signs of abuse that a child may display, we should also be on the lookout for certain types of unsettling behavior in adults holding positions of responsibility with children.

Again, many of the warning signs taken in isolation may be normal. If there is a range of factors present to make a parent or other caregiver feel uneasy about a person, it warrants further investigation.

Remember, over 90 percent of child sexual assault victims know the perpetrator and therefore are generally in positions of trust with the child.

Be wary of someone who

  • Regularly crosses personal “boundaries” with your child
  • Won’t take “no” for an answer
  • Engages in touching children (even playful tickling or massage may be grooming behavior)
  • Carries on unwanted behavior even after being asked to stop
  • Forms a friendship that is not appropriate to the role they fill in the child’s life
  • Finds opportunities to be alone with children
  • Becomes a key “provider” in your child’s life – rides, overnight stays, etc.
  • Gives a child gifts and excessive attention
  • Comments on a child’s sexual development inappropriately

Parents and primary caregivers need to act on their instincts with their children. If someone is acting in a way around your child that makes you uncomfortable, investigate it. Watch for the warning signs of abuse, talk to your child and report any concerns to the relevant authorities if necessary.

If you need to contact the lawyers at Andreozzi & Foote, PC with information on a case involving child sexual abuse, all the information provided will be treated confidentially, including your identity. Start with a free and confidential consultation.

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