Pennsylvania's Legal Options for Childhood Sexual Abuse Survivors

Pennsylvania lawmakers recently enhanced the legal rights of childhood sexual abuse survivors, and more changes may be on the way.

By , J.D. · Villanova University School of Law

In Pennsylvania, as in every state, survivors of childhood sexual assault and abuse can bring a civil lawsuit against the abuse perpetrator (and others), and criminal charges against the abuser are possible. But complications can arise because of something called the statute of limitations, a law that sets a time limit on when a criminal or civil case can be filed.

A number of states have passed laws giving prosecutors and survivors of childhood sexual abuse more time to take legal action (criminal or civil) against perpetrators of abuse and others who might bear legal responsibility for the survivor's harm. In this article, we'll look at recent changes to Pennsylvania law when it comes to the legal options of abuse survivors, and proposed legislation that might further expand those rights.

The Statute of Limitations and Childhood Sexual Abuse

Courts recognize that at some point the right to take legal action should terminate if the holder of the right takes too long to act on it. If too much time passes between an alleged wrong and the filing of a court case, the defendant (the person being sued) will have greater difficulty defending themselves. Documents get shredded, surveillance footage gets deleted, witnesses' memories fade, and so on.

But childhood sexual abuse cases are fairly unique in that trauma from these incidents often takes years to come to the surface. And while every path forward is unique, it's not uncommon for a decade or more to pass before an abuse survivor feels ready to face what happened, let alone take legal action. So when a statute of limitations requires a survivor to file a case within a few years of their reaching adulthood, that right to file is often lost.

Learn more about filing a lawsuit when sexual abuse happened a long time ago.

Pennsylvania's Statutes of Limitations for Childhood Sexual Abuse

Until 2019, Pennsylvania's statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse said:

  • Survivors of abuse had until the age of 30 to file a civil lawsuit against those responsible.
  • If a prosecutor decided to file criminal charges against the abuser, they had to begin the prosecution by the time the survivor turned 50.

In late 2019, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf signed House Bill 962 into law, ushering in the following changes to the civil statutes of limitations for childhood sex abuse:

  • If the alleged abuse occurred when the survivor was a minor, the survivor has until the age of 55 to sue.
  • If the alleged abuse occurred when the survivor was not a minor, but under the age of 24, they have until the age of 30 to bring a civil lawsuit against the alleged abuser. The previous law only gave two years from the date of the abuse to file a civil suit.

House Bill 962 also brought changes to the criminal statutes of limitations in these kinds of cases:

  • If the survivor was under the age of 18 when the alleged abuse occurred, there is no longer a criminal statute of limitation.
  • If the survivor was not a minor when the alleged abuse occurred, but was under the age of 24, the criminal statute of limitations is 20 years from the date of the alleged abuse.

Learn more about pressing criminal charges over childhood sexual abuse.

House Bill 962 also removed government and sovereign immunity in most sexual abuse cases (making it easier to hold school districts and other government entities liable for failing to prevent or put a stop to abuse). But none of the changes spurred by House Bill 962 applied retroactively. In other words, they did not apply to abuse that occurred before House Bill 962 became law. But there are strong efforts to change that.

Pennsylvania's Proposed "Lookback Window" for Childhood Sexual Abuse Lawsuits

There are two proposed laws in the Pennsylvania legislature that would make it possible for almost any survivor of childhood sex abuse to file a lawsuit within a special two-year "lookback window" which would open when/if these laws goes into effect. And once the two-year deadline passes, the current statute of limitations legal framework would go back into effect.

In an attempt to increase the chances of its legal survival, supporters of these proposals are taking a two-pronged approach to create the lookback window.

First, legislators are trying to create and pass a new law that would allow for the two-year lookback window. House Bill 951 would amend Title 42 of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes in a similar manner as House Bill 962.

Second, supporters of the lookback window want to amend the Pennsylvania Constitution with House Bill 14. Opponents of the lookback window are likely to attack its constitutionality, so changing Pennsylvania's constitution would largely nullify this strategy.

The filing rules we've discussed here—and the proposed "lookback window" rules—represent a significant expansion of childhood sexual abuse survivors' rights and options in Pennsylvania. For details on how these legislative changes might impact your potential case, you might want to discuss your situation with a Pennsylvania attorney. Learn more about finding the right attorney for you, and how a lawyer can help. And for more on the spectrum of help available to sexual abuse survivors, see our companion article Survivor Resources: Taking Action After Sexual Abuse.

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