The wrong solution to a very serious problem
The Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has resigned her position, because the Department of State failed to properly advertise a proposed Constitutional amendment, which would retroactively extend the legal deadline for the filing of civil claims for child abuse. In my personal view, whoever made this mistake did the citizens of our Commonwealth a huge favor.
Don’t get me wrong. For far too long, the sexual abuse of children and young women has been given little attention by our society. As a result, many thousands of victims were scarred for life. Fortunately, that outrage is finally getting the attention it deserves, and those accountable are being brought to justice. Unfortunately, this proposed solution just creates another problem.
All over the world, courts of justice impose time deadlines for the filing of criminal or civil complaints. Statutory periods are often lengthy. In Pennsylvania, the statute of limitation for felony prosecutions is five years after the crime. The period for civil claims related to a contract is four years after the contract is breached. For most personal injury claims, the period is two years after the injury.
The purpose of these statutes is obvious. Criminal statutes require the government to file charges within a reasonable period of time after the alleged offense, so that the accused has a fair chance to defend themselves. Those who choose to file civil claims must do so before all relevant evidence has been lost and witnesses have died.
Unfortunately, in a “knee jerk” reaction to the complicated problem of abuse, many state legislatures have over-extended statutes of limitation. Those who champion these changes fail to recognize that statutes of limitation do not exist to deny justice; they exist to promote it. No judge or jury can be expected to reach a just result in a case where the relevant documents and witness testimony has all been lost to time. Since my first day of law school, I have been reminded that justice delayed is usually justice denied.
A year ago, on February 18, 2020, the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America filed bankruptcy. No one thinks that Boy Scouts do not promptly pay their bills, nor that child abuse is widespread in that organization. The Boy Scouts could not manage limitless exposure from lawsuits seeking money damages for events far in the past, long after the evidence was lost, and the witnesses died.
Those who stand to profit from lawsuits may claim that the answer to abuse is more lawsuits. It is not. The answer is to stop the abuse. The silence is over. Those who see something, must say something. A great many Lycoming County attorneys volunteer their time to help abuse victims obtain Protective Orders. The Boy Scouts and the Catholic Church both require all registered volunteers to take training in how to recognize and stop potential child abuse. Every non-profit organization which serves children, must do the same. I only hope that the terrible sins of the past will not require that we bankrupt every church and non-profit organization, in the future.
William P. Carlucci is a local attorney and past president of the Pennsylvania Bar Association.