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Wait continues for victims of childhood sexual abuse

People waiting for a long-overdue law that would allow people who were sexually abused as a child a new chance to sue perpetrators will have to wait a little longer.

A proposed change to the state constitution would have lifted the statute of limitations for child sex abuse survivors for two years, allowing them to sue their abusers and any institutions that covered up the abuse.

The proposal was part of a three-amendment package that also included Republican-backed measures to expand voter-identification requirements and empower lawmakers to cancel regulations without facing a governor’s veto.

Attempts to pass the package stalled in the Legislature last week, not meeting a Friday deadline imposed by Gov. Josh Shapiro for approval by both the House and Senate. This would have placed the amendments on the May primary ballot for voters to decide. To become law, a proposed constitutional amendment must pass the General Assembly in two consecutive legislative sessions and win the approval of Pennsylvania voters.

As expected, each party blamed the other for not meeting the deadline.

The Senate passed the package on a nearly party-line vote Jan. 11, sending it to the House for further action, but House Democrats were pushing for the lawsuit window to be considered on its own, not combined with the other proposed amendments.

A similar proposed constitutional amendment first passed the Legislature during its 2019-20 session and was poised to be approved a second time in the legislative session that began in January 2021.

But an error by the Wolf administration — the secretary of state’s office failed to advertise it as legally required — derailed that momentum, and the Legislature was forced to start the process from scratch.

After the mistake became public last year, lawmakers again pursued the proposed two-year window for civil suits. Wolf said late last year that legislative leaders in both chambers had agreed to set up a second and final vote on the change when the General Assembly reconvened this year, setting the stage for it to appear on the ballot in May.

But that didn’t happen.

Marci Hamilton, a University of Pennsylvania professor and founder and CEO of the advocacy organization Child USA, has been fighting for more than 15 years to get litigation windows passed in state legislatures. New York and New Jersey are among the states that have altered their statute of limitations laws to give survivors a chance to press their case in court.

Getting these laws over the finish line is never easy, but the battles in Pennsylvania have been notably lengthy and pitched, she said.

“Survivors have really suffered over the 17 years, because there has been hope, at times,” Hamilton said. “But this Legislature has always let them down.”

Now voters almost certainly will not see the proposed amendment on the statewide ballot until November at the earliest, and victims of sexual abuse as children will have to wait again to hold those accountable for the wrongs they have done.


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