Victims of child sex abuse are getting caught up in Harrisburg's partisan battle.
As a politically active advocate, Tammy Lerner is all too familiar with the dubious ways that politicians give the runaround when dealing with controversial legislation in Harrisburg. But last week, after watching a live stream of a House floor session on statute of limitation reform for child sex-abuse cases—the issue she’s been working on since 2006—her blood was boiling.
“[It was] deplorable,” says Lerner. “It’s so maniacal and underhanded.”
Some background: As reported by PW in February, House Rep. Louise Bishop (D-Philadelphia) and Rep. Michael McGeehan (D-Philadelphia) have taken the lead in the latest attempt to revise Pennsylvania’s statutes of limitation (SOL) on child sex abuse, an issue that has been viciously fought over in Harrisburg for years.
Bishop’s bill made headlines last fall when, in the wake of the arrest of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky, the 78-year-old representative shakily spoke out at a press conference, for the first time in her life, about being sexually assaulted by her stepfather when she was 12 years old.
Bishop’s 66 years of silence reflects research that shows it’s common for victims of child sex abuse to delay disclosure for years, often until there is a triggering event. For Bishop, that was the Penn State scandal.
Currently in Pennsylvania, alleged victims of child sex abuse have until the age of 50 to file criminal charges and 30 to file a civil lawsuit against their attackers. Bishop’s bill sought to abolish the age limit altogether on both the civil and criminal side. McGeehan’s bill proposed that, like Delaware and California have done, Pennsylvania install a two-year “window” for civil suits.
A window is a specified period of time, in this case two years, wherein victims who did not get to file charges before aging out of the statute of limitation are able to file civil lawsuits against their attackers. A civil window is the only option because the Supreme Court has ruled that windows for criminal prosecution are unconstitutional.
With a civil suit, accusers—like at least one victim of Sandusky’s; like all the alleged victims of disgraced Philadelphia Daily News sports writer Bill Conlin; like all of the alleged victims detailed in the 2005 grand jury report on the Philadelphia archdiocese; and like Tammy Lerner—at least have a way to publicly identify their attackers.
Lerner, 42, didn’t know about statute of limitation laws until she tried to bring her abuser to justice and was told it was too late. Current law means that even though the man who allegedly raped her from the time she was 4 until she was 12 years old openly admitted what he did to her and another little girl, he can’t be charged by the state or sued by either woman. In fact, Lerner can be sued by the man who raped her if she names him, even if it’s to warn other parents with children in his vicinity.
“It’s like having a lifetime gag order against us from talking about it, which continues the victimization,” Lerner says.
Despite the spotlight from the Philadelphia Archdiocese and Penn State trials and subsequent calls to examine Pennsylvania laws pertaining to child sex abuse, Bishop’s and McGeehan’s bills stalled for 15 months. Advocates have repeatedly pointed to Reps. Ron Marsico (R-Dauphin) and Thomas Caltagirone (D-Berks), the respective majority and minority chairs of the House Judiciary Committee, as the obstacles. Committee chairs routinely stonewall bills by simply refusing to place them on the calendar.
Last month, an organization co-founded by Lerner, the Foundation to Abolish Sex Abuse, took Marsico on in a rare, bold way by publishing a newspaper ad and calling him out by name. Marsico pointedly refused to publicly respond to the ad, but word was that he was furious. Then, Reps. Bishop and McGeehan struck while the iron was hot and filed a discharge resolution, a rarely used parliamentary procedure that pries the bill out of a chair’s hands and onto the floor for vote.
Under pressure, Marsico and Caltagirone finally took action, but then pulled their own crafty maneuver. Last Wednesday, they finally brought the bills to the floor, then unceremoniously defanged them. They allowed Bishop’s bill to abolish the SOL for criminal prosecution—and added an amendment to extend the civil age to 50 years old, rather than abolishing it entirely. But they struck the key two-year window legislation out of McGeehan’s bill. And to advocates, the window is the most important part of SOL reform, because it offers an avenue for those survivors who’ve already aged past the SOL. So abolishing the SOL is definitely progress—but only protects future victims because the law is not retroactive.
The Insurance Federation of PA, a staunch opponent to the legislation that incidentally donated money in 2012 to both Caltagirone and Marsico but to neither Bishop nor McGeehan, is surely pleased. As is the PA Catholic Conference, which isn’t required to disclose the expenditures but lobbies hard against the legislation for reasons that are now, given the landmark child endangerment conviction of Msgr. Lynn and forthcoming civil suits, sadly obvious.
Then came the real lesson in Harrisburg spin: Next, Marsico and Caltagirone introduced HB 2488. The bill wasn’t on the schedule, because it didn’t exist before then. You guessed it: HB2488 does what Bishop’s and McGeehan’s amended bills would do, but now Marsico and Caltagirone get the credit.
In the session, Marsico lamented that he was displeased with the “premature action” of the Committee, because he would have rather have waited for the recommendations of the Task Force on Child Protection that was set up last year, due in November. Said Task Force, however, created from a resolution sponsored by—surprise—Marsico and Caltagirone, is expressly not charged with considering window legislation.
“It was really, truly disgusting watching the bantering back and forth between these men who hold the fate of a lot of children in their hands,” says Lerner.
So for now, the window legislation is dead. But Lerner refuses to give up.
“We’re going to keep turning up the heat,” she says. “We’re not going away. I want every single one of their constituents to know this issue in and out.”
We need to hear from you—the survivor, the loved one, the advocate. We need you to tell your story, in your own words. To do so would help bring to light the one thing that’s missing from the national conversation: the reality of what it’s like to heal from the devastating effects of sexual abuse.