Child Sex Abuse Survivors In Pa. Denied Legal Relief As Emergency Effort Fails

 Credit Jose F. Moreno Phila. Inquirer .Rep. Mark Rozzi (D., Berks) is seen here at a 2018 rally at the state Capitol advocating for a change in state law to allow lawsuits for child sex abuse.
by Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA |

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HARRISBURG — Survivors of child sexual abuse will have to wait until at least 2023 for the public to consider whether to grant them a special window to sue their perpetrators over conduct that happened many years ago and was, in many cases, systematically covered up.

Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland) said in a statement Monday that her caucus does not believe the matter rises to the level of an emergency, effectively ending frenzied efforts in recent weeks to place the question before voters this May.

Lawmakers in the state House of Representatives pursued the emergency method after Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration revealed it had failed to take the proper steps to get the referendum on the ballot for this year’s primary.

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Instead, Ward said, the Senate will restart the legislative clock and use the traditional, but lengthy, process for amending the state constitution. The question would ask voters to create a two-year window for survivors who are legally time-barred to pursue litigation.

Pushing the matter off another two years is bound to devastate survivors anew.

Many have waited decades for a resolution and were heartened last month when the legislature signaled it would employ the rarely used emergency path to get the referendum on the May ballot, as had originally been planned.

But Ward said emergency constitutional amendments are only used when something is threatening or about to threaten “the safety or welfare of the commonwealth.”

“The Wolf administration dropped the ball,” Ward said in a statement, adding that the emergency route is not the right way to fix the problem.

Under state law, any changes to the Pennsylvania Constitution must pass the legislature in two consecutive sessions. The proposed change is then placed on the ballot for voters to make the ultimate decision.

After each passage, the Department of State is required to advertise the proposed amendment in all 67 Pennsylvania counties.

The legislature, in its 2019-20 session, approved five proposed changes to the state constitution. One was to provide a two-year reprieve in the statute of limitations so older sexual abuse survivors can sue.

The measure gained momentum after the 2018 release of a blistering, statewide grand jury report that documented decades of child sexual abuse and cover-ups in nearly every Catholic diocese in Pennsylvania. Lawmakers were on track to approve it for a second time earlier this year so that the question could appear on the May ballot.

But the Department of State, which oversees elections in Pennsylvania, failed to advertise the two-year window proposal after the legislature approved it for the first time. The error, discovered early this year, led to the resignation of the department’s chief, Kathy Boockvar.

Wolf apologized for the mistake, which he said was caused by “human error,” though his administration has refused to release details. The state inspector general is investigating the matter.

After the admission, leaders in the state House of Representatives said they would push for an emergency constitutional amendment. Unlike traditional constitutional amendments, this kind of proposal only has to pass in one legislative session and can appear on the ballot as long as it has garnered the support of a two-thirds majority in both legislative chambers.

But last week, support in the GOP-controlled House for an emergency amendment also appeared to be waning.

In an interview Monday, House GOP spokesperson Jason Gottesman said that in light of the Senate’s announcement, it is unlikely the House would bring the emergency constitutional amendment to a vote.

“We are not in the business of providing false hope,” he said.

Democrats in the chamber pushed hard Monday for a floor vote on the emergency amendment, despite the Senate’s position on the issue. Several were apoplectic when GOP leaders moved to adjourn early, without considering the legislation.

In remarks on the House floor Monday, Rep. Jim Gregory (R., Blair), a child sexual abuse survivor and a key supporter of the two-year window, said survivors, many of whom spent the weekend in Harrisburg, “want us to get something done.”

“We have to do something to get this moving,” said Gregory, who also urged the Office of State Inspector General to conclude its review into the failure at the Department of State.

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“I’ve been waiting seven weeks to find out whether or not it’s a mistake, whether it was human error, or — excuse me for suggesting the possibility — that it was done with intent when you consider the very sensitive nature of the crimes that were committed that bring us to this very day,” he said.

Gottesman, the House Republican spokesperson, would not discuss specifics on what, if any, next steps the House would take. One option would be to follow the Senate and restart the clock on passing the proposed amendment in this session and next.

The other possibility would be to simply pass a bill to create a two-year window. The House has supported that route in the past, but in the Senate, it has been a non-starter for years.

Many GOP senators believe that creating a two-year window amounts to making a retroactive change to state law, which would violate the remedies clause in the Pennsylvania Constitution. They have asserted that the only way to ensure the window is legal — and that it could withstand court challenges — is through a constitutional amendment.

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