Wolf endorses grand jury calls for loosening limits to lawsuits for sexual abuse

September 27, 2018

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf

Setting the stage for a battle with state Senate leadership, Gov. Tom Wolf on Friday endorsed legislation that would allow victims of child sexual abuse a two-year window to file civil lawsuits even though statutes of limitation bars them from suing.

Wolf’s recommendation and call for immediate action from lawmakers came as part of his sweeping endorsement for four legislative changes recommended by a statewide grand jury that investigated allegations of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests. In addition to permitting retroactive lawsuits by victims, the grand jury called on the legislature to:

- abolish the criminal and civil statutes of limitations on such crimes;

- clarify the penalties for those failing to report allegations of child sexual abuse; and

- explicitly state that non-disclosure agreements in civil settlements do not bar victims from reporting abuse to law enforcement.

“I implore the House and Senate to send the reforms laid out in the grand jury report to my desk without any hesitation,” Wolf said in a statement.

The Democrat governor said legislative attention is needed for the grand jury report that recounted allegations of “horrifying” clergy sexual abuse of more than 1,000 children and cover-ups in six Catholic diocese, including Pittsburgh and Greensburg.

“Let’s be clear: Many victims were coerced and suppressed from coming forward by an institution they felt obligated to respect,” Wolf said. “The reforms laid out in the grand jury report would deliver what victims deserve.”

His call to action came two days after Senate president pro tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, said he would not support any measures providing a window of opportunity for retroactive civil suits.

Scarnati said such a law would run counter to the Pennsylvania constitution. Instead, he suggested that Catholic dioceses be permitted to establish a settlement fund for victims.

A limited settlement fund, permitted to exist outside the courts, would not provide justice to victims, Wolf said.

State Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, an abuse survivor who testified before the grand jury, said he believes he has the votes to push all four of the grand jury’s reforms through the Republican-controlled state House when the Legislature returns Sept. 24.

“This would benefit all survivors of child sexual abuse, not just those abused by priests,” Rozzi said.

He called Wolf’s support huge.

“A victim assistance fund -- a settlement fund -- would be the cover-up of all cover-ups. It would mean the church would not have to identify the priests,” Rozzi said.

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