Advocates for child sex abuse victims work to save bill

“John Salveson, founder of the Delaware County-based Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse, said Thursday that move would be more window dressing than substance.
‘Frankly, what it looks like to me is just a fig leaf,’ he said. ‘I think they’re hoping to leave the impression that it’s going to help victims. And it’s not.'”

6/24/16 | Liam Migdail-Smith | Reading Eagle |

As state senators mull possible changes to a proposed overhaul of Pennsylvania’s child sexual abuse laws, victims groups are ratcheting up their calls to preserve what they say is the most important part of the plan.

Specifically, supporters of the plan want to see it include a provision that would allow victims to move forward with now-expired lawsuits against their abusers and organizations that shield them.

The calls come after reports Wednesday that the Senate Judiciary Committee plans to remove that part of the bill and replace it with a provision to give victims a way around the limits if they can prove an extreme cover-up.

John Salveson, founder of the Delaware County-based Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse, said Thursday that move would be more window dressing than substance.
“Frankly, what it looks like to me is just a fig leaf,” he said. “I think they’re hoping to leave the impression that it’s going to help victims. And it’s not.”

The bill would eliminate time limits for criminal charges in child sex abuse cases. It would also increase the age limit for victims to sue from 30 to 50.

The language in question would make the civil changes retroactive, allowing victims up to age 50 to file lawsuits even in cases that took place decades ago.

Several attorneys told senators last week that the retroactive language would violate the state Constitution. Supporters disagreed and said the courts should decide.

Sen. Stewart J. Greenleaf, the Montgomery County Republican who chairs the committee, said Wednesday that Senate leaders are negotiating changes to the bill that could make it easier for victims to get around the limit in cases of “fraudulent concealment.”

Jennifer Kocher, Senate GOP spokeswoman, said Thursday that options are still being explored “with an eye toward ensuring that whatever we do will help the survivors of child sex abuse while at the same time upholding our obligation to pass bills that are constitutional.”

Lynne Abraham, the former Philadelphia district attorney whose grand jury reports from 2005-2011 revealed rampant abuse cover-ups by Catholic Church leaders, called the fraudulent concealment plan “smoke and mirrors.”

Case law already allows that as an exception to lawsuit limits, she said, but Pennsylvania courts have repeatedly ruled against it applying in cases of child sexual abuse cover-ups. She said that’s because victims have a high bar to prove that essentially amounts to them having to show they were blocked from knowing they were wronged.

“They’re not doing anything you don’t already have,” Abraham said of the state senators. “They want to make it look like they’re doing something when they’re doing nothing.”
Catholic leaders and the insurance industry have lobbied against the bill, particularly the retroactive piece. Opponents say it would open institutions to a flood of hard-to-defend lawsuits over abuse that happened decades ago. Church leaders say that would punish today’s Catholics for wrongdoings of the past.

Supporters say the changes are needed to provide overdue justice to victims and hold institutions that concealed abuse accountable by opening their records to subpoena. They say the lawsuits can help expose pedophiles and encourage more victims to come forward.

Contact Liam Migdail-Smith: 610-371-5022 or lsmith@readingeagle.com.

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