By Christen Smith | The Center Square
(The Center Square) – A new report in Pennsylvania estimates opening a two-year litigation window for survivors of childhood sexual abuse to file civil claims against public schools could cost taxpayers as much as $32 billion.
The Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy published its analysis Tuesday – citing data from a national study – in which it suggested claims against Pennsylvania schools could reach 15,000. The U.S. Department of Education also speculates the abuse rate in public schools is 100 times more prevalent than incidents uncovered in Catholic schools in the last decade.
That figure places claim estimates around 100,000, according to the analysis. The center assessed multiple metrics from various studies and settled claims in other states, ultimately concluding that the broadly-supported policy could cost districts between $5 billion and $32 billion.
The massive price tag could trigger significant budget cuts and tax increases to cover the legal fees, legislative sources say. It’s a risk that, so far, hasn’t deterred Gov. Tom Wolf and his allies in the General Assembly who supported the special session called on Monday to settle the issue.
But the financial burden is a crucial detail that deserves thoughtful deliberation, said Erica Clayton Wright, spokeswoman for Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward, R-Greensburg. Clayton Wright told The Center Square on Tuesday the senator hasn’t wavered in her belief that all survivors – from public and private schools – “should have the ability to face their abusers in court.”
“That said, in addition to the constitutional amendment being the strongest legal path for victims, it also allows the public to properly vet this matter and consider the potential cost for their school districts,” she said.
The center analyzed 20 similar cases between 2012 and 2020 and estimated that rewarded claims ranged from $325,000 to $500,000. This means Pennsylvania school districts, in total, could face claims varying between $5 billion and $32.5 billion.
It’s inconsiderate, Clayton Wright said, to support an “emergency process” that “bypasses consideration of the taxpayers.”
The policy’s path has been five years in the making, ever since Pennsylvania made headlines in 2018 after a grand jury probe revealed six Catholic dioceses covered up allegations of abuse involving more than 300 priests and 1,000 children.
Since then, state lawmakers have insisted they want to offer adult survivors the chance to sue their abusers, who would otherwise escape civil punishment for their crimes due to an expired statute of limitations.
And while all sides have long agreed on the merits of the policy, disputes over the best way to implement it abound. A clerical error within the Department of State brought to light in 2021 – just months before voters were set to decide the issue via ballot referendum – complicated the issue even further and delayed the process at least another two years.
Constitutional amendments must pass each chamber in two consecutive legislative sessions before appearing on the ballot, meaning the earliest voters could weigh in would be the May primary election.
Both Ward and House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Quarryville, prefer the lengthy amendment process over passing legislation to open the window because they fear the bill would face legal challenges that will mire it in court for years.
House Speaker Mark Rozzi, D-Temple, himself a survivor, also supports the amendment process, but wanted to address it during the governor’s special session – something Cutler said was unnecessary given the the policy’s broad bipartisan support.
Rozzi said Monday he will organize a bipartisan legislative working group to forge a path forward.