Measures to extend abuse statutes still bogged down

Posted: December 23, 2011

Backers of bills that would allow childhood sex abuse victims more time to confront their attackers in court could not have asked for a year with more news to support their cause.

But despite a succession of scandals in 2011 - first in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, then at Pennsylvania State University, and now one involving former Philadelphia Daily News columnist Bill Conlin - measures to extend both civil and criminal statutes of limitations stand no closer to passage than they did 12 months ago.

In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, such proposals have encountered stiff opposition from critics who warn against changing laws in response to the scandal of the moment.

Lawmakers "must temper the impulse to find a 'quick fix' to a horrendous crime with the responsibility to exercise sound legislative judgment," said Ron Marisco (R., Dauphin), chairman of the Pennsylvania House Judiciary Committee, in a statement.

The accusations leveled against Conlin this week are only the latest scandal to fuel calls for changing sex abuse statutes. Six purported victims have now accused the Hall of Fame baseball writer of molestation dating back to the '70s. Through his attorney, he has vowed to clear his name.

But because Conlin's accusers allege abuse that took place decades ago, the sportswriter is unlikely to face criminal charges or civil litigation.

"It's regrettable that New Jersey prosecutors are limited by a statute of limitations in presenting a case," Kathleen Kane, a Lackawanna County prosecutor currently running for Pennsylvania attorney general, said Thursday. "Law enforcement must be provided the legal means to arrest and prosecute sexual offenders, regardless if the crime occurred a week or a decade ago."

Separate measures before lawmakers in Pennsylvania would lift the criminal time limit for reporting sex abuse crimes while creating a two-year window for accusers to sue on old claims that fall outside the current time frame for civil suits.

In New Jersey, a measure that cleared the House Judiciary Committee a year ago would eliminate any civil statute of limitations.

So far, the bills have not been scheduled for full legislative votes in either state house.

That's a trend Marci Hamilton - a plaintiff's attorney who currently represents alleged sex abuse victims suing Penn State and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia - sees changing.

With each new child molestation scandal, the public has grown more supportive of these types of laws, she said.

Over the last 15 years, state legislators have gradually expanded both their criminal and civil statutes of limitations on childhood sex abuse.

Several states, including Delaware and Florida, have eliminated time limits on when criminal charges can be filed. New Jersey lawmakers lifted their own criminal statute of limitations in 1996. The new law applies only to abuse that occurred after that year, thus excluding any of Conlin's alleged victims.

Pennsylvania has extended its own criminal statute of limitations at least three times in the last two decades - first in 1991, giving victims until their 23d birthday to report childhood abuse. In 2002, that time frame was extended until age 30.

Lawmakers raised the cutoff age to 50 a year later, prompted by a Philadelphia grand jury report that cited more than 60 suspected predator priests who could not be prosecuted under current law.

But defense attorneys argue that time limits offer crucial protections to those facing serious allegations.

Statutes of limitations "protect the innocent person from having to account for his whereabouts and activities after 20, 30, or 50 years," said Marisco, the Pennsylvania House judiciary chairman.

On the civil front, movement has come more slowly.

Pennsylvania currently allows adults to file suit for childhood abuse until they turn 30, while accusers have until 20 years of age in New Jersey.

In March, State Rep. Michael McGeehan (D., Phila.) proposed a bill that would open a two-year window for accusers to file suit related to old abuse claims. But opposition has been considerable.

Groups such as the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, unions, and the insurance lobby argue such proposals open them up to torrents of lawsuits that can be difficult to defend decades down the line. They point to effects in the only two states to successfully pass such laws.

In California, more than 850 claims flooded courts during the one-year window legislators opened in 2002. The fallout cost the Catholic Church millions in damages and settlements.

In Delaware, the Diocese of Wilmington declared bankruptcy in 2009 after it was named in more than 175 suits following passage of a two-year window.

So far, House leaders have refused to schedule the proposal for a vote.

New Jersey's proposal - which would eliminate the civil statute of limitations altogether - has encountered similar roadblocks.

The state's House Judiciary Committee passed the bill last year. But when asked Thursday about its prospects for a full vote, Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D., Gloucester) responded: "It's an issue that isn't going away, but this also isn't a bill you just put through."

Still, advocates remain hopeful that tide may be turning.

Since the arrest of former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, public support for McGeehan's bill has grown. Conlin's retirement from the newspaper this week has only added to the fray, he said.

"I would have hoped for faster movement," McGeehan said Thursday. "But I think people's minds, beliefs, and opinions are finally changing on this issue."

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Contact staff writer Jeremy Roebuck at 267-564-5218, jroebuck@phillynews.com, or @inqmontco on Twitter.

Inquirer staff writer George Anastasia contributed to this article.

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