Abuse survivors dealt another setback, as GOP Senate says it won’t take up emergency reform

By: - March 22, 2021 1:19 pm

(*This story was updated at 7:13  p.m. on Monday, 3/22/21 with new reporting)

After being derailed last month by an administrative snafu, a years-long push to let child sex abuse victims revive old cases in court has once again been delayed by legislative inaction. 

Republican leaders in the state Senate said Monday morning that they wouldn’t advance an emergency constitutional amendment creating a two-year window for abuse victims to bring civil lawsuits in decades-old cases.

Instead, Senate Republicans said they’d pursue the reform as a standard constitutional amendment – a lengthy process that will require survivors, many of whom missed their chance to sue their abusers as children, to wait at least two more years before their fate is put to the voters at a statewide referendum.

The decision will essentially restart the clock on an amendment effort that was years in the making. 

But Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, said that there was not enough support in her caucus to fast-track the proposal. 

She laid blame with the Democratic Wolf administration, which revealed in February that it made a clerical error that effectively voided the amendment effort that lawmakers initiated in 2019.

“The dereliction of duty by the Wolf administration has forced the Pennsylvania Senate to reset the clock on the constitutional amendment,” Ward said. “The Pennsylvania Senate will act in the same manner as it has previously and in accordance with the Commonwealth’s constitution and will seek to pass another constitutional amendment.”

Ward’s announcement dealt a fatal blow to the emergency measure, which had been up for a vote in the Republican-controlled House on Monday afternoon. 

But the House adjourned around 3 p.m. without taking it up. House GOP spokesman Jason Gottesman said leaders called off the vote once the Senate made its opposition clear, because “we’re not in the business of providing people false hope.”

The Senate followed suit in a brief session Monday evening. A Senate committee is scheduled to meet Tuesday to take the first vote on the standard amendment instead. 

State lawmakers have been debating the retroactive window for years. They were galvanized by the release of a 2018 grand jury report detailing decades of abuse and coverup by Catholic church leaders in Pennsylvania. 

Lawmakers first approved the proposed amendment in 2019 and were on track to send it to voters during the May 18 primary. That was before the Wolf administration announced that it failed to advertise the proposal in newspapers, as is required by law. 

Lawmakers tried to salvage the amendment by invoking seldom-used emergency powers. Democrats mostly supported the maneuver, and Republican House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, committed to calling it up for a floor vote.

But rank-and-file Republicans raised concerns around the emergency amendment, calling it an abuse of their constitutional powers.

What comes next

Victim advocates said on Monday that the legislature’s inaction would only aid child abusers and institutions that protected them. 

“Survivors need justice now,” said Marci Hamilton, CEO of CHILD USA, a non-profit child welfare advocacy organization. “There is no reason to give bishops and other institutions in the state two more years to move around their assets.”

Hamilton and other advocates are calling on the Legislature to write the two-year window into state law instead of the constitution. A statutory fix would take effect immediately after being signed by Gov. Tom Wolf.

The House approved a statutory window in 2018 with bipartisan support. But the reform died in the Senate, where then-Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, did not let it come up for a vote.

Republican leaders, including Scarnati, have argued that a law providing retroactive justice to victims would violate the constitution and collapse under legal challenges. Scarnati only agreed to advance the reform as a constitutional amendment. 

Despite mounting pressure from lawmakers and advocates, Ward implied Monday that her caucus hasn’t changed its stance. 

“The strongest legal position to bring closure to this matter and allow all victims (public and private) of childhood sexual abuse to face their abusers is via constitutional amendment,” she said in her statement. 

Amending the state constitution typically takes up to two years.

The General Assembly must approve proposed constitutional amendments in two consecutive legislative sessions before sending them to voters for ratification. 

Lawmakers just kicked off a fresh session in January, which means that they could send the proposal to voters during the May 2023 municipal primary election if it gets legislative approval in the session that begins that year. 

Even if lawmakers approve the amendment, it could fail if voters reject it at the ballot box.

Advocates say that any relief measure for victims is sure to be met with lawsuits as institutions and their insurers, who will try to preempt costly settlements.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said that the risk of a legal battle shouldn’t deter lawmakers from enacting the two-year window in state statute. 

He said that lawmakers also could amend state law to send any legal challenges straight to the state Supreme Court. That would ensure that any disputes about its constitutionality are resolved quickly and save victims a two-year wait for a new amendment.

“If Republicans are unwilling to vote on an emergency constitutional amendment, we have no choice but to enact a statutory two-year window with expedited jurisdiction to the PA Supreme Court,” Costa said. “It was due to no fault of survivors that the constitutional amendment was not properly advertised, and they should not be made to suffer further because of administrative error.”

Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, who has championed sex abuse reforms in the Legislature, agreed.

“At some point we all have to get together and figure out what is our path forward.” said Rozzi, who was sexually abused by a priest as a child. “The victims can’t wait another three years, that’s what I do know.”

Capital-Star staff reporter Stephen Caruso contributed to this report. 

‘We’ll be there, masks and all’: Closed out of the Capitol for months, sex abuse survivors reluctantly return to push for emergency reform

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.