Each 9 minutes in the United States, child protective services finds evidence for a claim of child sexual abuse. Childhood sexual abuse is a widespread problem, affecting 1 in 9 girls and 1 in 53 boys under the age of 18. In nearly all cases (93%), the perpetrator is someone known to the victim.
For a variety of reasons, many victims and survivors of childhood sexual abuse do not report their abuse until adulthood. This can leave them without a path to justice, as the law imposes strict time limits on legal actions. A bill introduced in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, House Bill 951, would change that reality, giving victims and survivors a one-time 2 year window to file a lawsuit against their abusers — and the organizations that protected them.
What Is House Bill 951?
House Bill 951, or HB 951, would amend the statute of limitations in Pennsylvania for cases related to child sexual abuse. A statute of limitations is a time limit in which a legal action — in this case, a civil lawsuit — must be filed. Currently, for childhood sexual abuse, the statute of limitations for a civil lawsuit is the age of adulthood plus 12 years. For most victims of childhood sexual abuse, this means that they have until age 30 to file a civil lawsuit against their abusers and the organizations that protected them.
HB 951 would open up a two year window for child victims that were previously barred by the statute of limitations. Under this law, adult victims of child sexual abuse who did not file a lawsuit within the statute of limitations (by age 30 for most individuals) would have two years to sue their abusers and the organizations that sheltered them for the harm caused by their abuse. This window would be a one-time opportunity.
Voters would have been able to weigh in on opening a 2 year window during the May 2021 primaries in Pennsylvania. The General Assembly had passed legislation to ask voters to decide whether to amend the state Constitution to open the window for lawsuits. Unfortunately, this question did not get on the ballot after the Pennsylvania Department of State failed to properly advertise the question. This led to the introduction of HB 951.
The sponsor of the bill, Representative Mike Rozzi, is himself a survivor of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a priest. HB 951 passed the state House by a vote of 149-52 in March 2021. The Senate Judiciary Committee then approved the bill by a vote of 11-3. Senate President Pro Tem Jake Corman (R-Centre County) and Senate Judiciary Committee chairperson Lisa Baker (R-Luzerne County) both support the bill. It is now stalled, waiting to be called for a vote on the Senate floor by Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward.
Why Is It Needed?
Sexual violence — like other forms of trauma — can have long-term effects that often delay both disclosure and healing. Studies show that just 1/3 of victims and survivors disclose their abuse in childhood, while another 1/3 never disclose. For victims and survivors of childhood sexual abuse, the average age to disclose is 52.
According to data from the Department of Justice, nondisclosure is incredibly common. As much as 86% of all child sexual abuse is never reported. When victims and survivors do report their abuse, a substantial percentage do not tell anyone until they are well into adulthood.
The reasons why delayed disclosure is so common among victims and survivors of child sex abuse are complicated. Children face many barriers that prevent or delay disclosure, including:
Lacking the knowledge needed to recognize sexual abuse
Not having the ability to articulate that they have been abused;
Not having an adult to tell;
Lacking opportunities to disclose abuse;
Not being believed when they do disclose their abuse;
Experiencing trauma from the abuse;
Dealing with the power dynamics between the child victim and adult perpetrator; and
Facing institutional power structures.
For example, a child who is abused by someone in a position of power in their community — such as a teacher or a pastor — may not fully understand that what is happening to them is wrong. If they do attempt to tell a parent or other trusted adult, they may not be believed. The trauma of the abuse, combined with the adults in their lives telling them that it didn’t happen, leads many victims and survivors to not come forward until they are older adults.
By the time that most victims disclose their abuse, the statute of limitations have expired — making it very difficult to obtain justice. While the criminal statute of limitations for child sexual abuse has been expanded in Pennsylvania (to age of adulthood, plus 32 years), the time period of civil actions remains capped at age 30 for most victims and survivors. This creates a situation where law enforcement could pursue charges against an abuser after a 40 year old survivor comes forward to report abuse — but that same 40 year old could not file a civil lawsuit against their abuser.
What Do The Experts Say?
People who are familiar with the dynamics of childhood sexual abuse — including delayed disclosure — support HB 951. According to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (PCAR), HB 951 supports healing for survivors who, through no fault of their own, have suffered a lifetime of trauma and who deserve to walk through the doors to seek justice and civil remedies for the harm inflicted upon them when they were children. This law will help make our communities safer by bringing to justice people who have committed (and may continue to commit) child sexual abuse while going unidentified and unaccountable.
Senator Kim Ward has declined to bring this bill to a vote before the full Senate, arguing that there are questions about constitutionality and stating that it would “open the floodgates” to civil suits that are unrelated to past child sexual abuse cases. However, legal experts have supported the constitutionality of this bill, as have many members of the Pennsylvania Senate. As outlined in a letter to the Pennsylvania Senate from PCAR (below), there are strong legal arguments to support the opening of a statutory window for child sexual abuse survivors.
In addition to PCAR, a number of other organizations and groups support HB 951, including:
SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abuse By Priests)
Survivors of abuse by Larry Nassar
Earlier this week, these organizations — along with Attorney General Josh Shapiro — held a rally in support of HB 951. Per Kimberly Fox, an Education Specialist at Blackburn Center who spoke at the rally, “The more we learn about the brain and how we process trauma, the more we realize the complexity of coming to terms with adverse experiences, especially when the experience happens to the very young. This takes time - time victims and survivors are entitled to and should be granted.”
What Can I Do?
HB 951 cannot move forward — and victims and survivors cannot pursue justice — until it is scheduled for a vote by Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward. To get it scheduled for a vote, we need your help.
If you believe — like we do — that victims and survivors of child sexual abuse should have the opportunity to file a lawsuit against their abusers, you can help by reaching out to your legislators and urging them to support HB 951. Call your Senator and tell them that you support HB 951. If you are represented by Senator Kim Ward, call her office at (724) 600-7002 and ask that she bring HB 951 to the floor for a vote.
As always, we are here if you need us. We offer a variety of services to victims and survivors of all types of abuse, including childhood sexual abuse. Call our hotline anytime at 1-888-832-2272 to speak to a trained crisis counselor. All calls are free of charge and can be anonymous.