As child advocates plan for action, top Senate GOP lawmaker Ward considers the ‘best legal path’ to justice

By: - July 8, 2021 4:02 pm

Child sexual abuse survivors and their allies rally at the state Capitol for statute of limitations reforms in 2018. Photo Source: Attorney General Josh Shapiro via Flickr.

When state lawmakers return to Harrisburg in September, Marci Hamilton will be waiting to greet them.

“And so will many, many survivors,” Hamilton, who’s CEO of the nonprofit child advocacy group Child USA, told the Capital-Star. “There’s not going to be any let up on the pressure.”

That pressure is geared toward legislation that would open a two-year window for child sex abuse survivors to pursue civil lawsuits against their abusers and the institutions that were aware of credible allegations but never took action to stop them.

If it weren’t for an error made by the Department of State, the window for child sex abuse survivors would have appeared on the May primary election ballot as a proposed constitutional amendment.

Child USA, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit, has launched a series of digital and physical billboard campaigns to pressure lawmakers to pass legislation that would open a window for child sex abuse survivors.

Restarting the amendment process in response to the mistake, the House and Senate passed legislation in March that would put the issue on the ballot in 2023. The bill will have to pass in both chambers in the next session before going to the Department of State for advertising.

But advocates prefer a quicker path and are focusing on a bill proposed by Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, that would open the window for survivors legislatively. 

The bill passed in the House and was voted out of the Senate Judiciary Committee in April, but it has yet to see a vote by the full Senate. 

“The longer they drag their feet, the worse they look,” Hamilton said.

Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, who controls the upper chamber’s calendar, has been accused by advocates and survivors of stalling the bill. 

Ward, who has denied the allegations, has voiced concerns about the legislation’s constitutionality. She’s also questioned the Legislature’s ability to pass a window for child sex abuse cases without disrupting other areas of the law.

‘Do your job’: Abuse survivors call on Senate to pass stalled lawsuit reform bill

In a March statement, Ward said the Wolf administration “dropped the ball and failed to initiate the public review process.” 

The GOP-controlled Legislature determined that the matter did not meet emergency status criteria to make it on the ballot. Ward said the “strongest legal position” to give survivors the chance to face their abusers in court is through the amendment process.

“This is a bipartisan problem,” Hamilton said, agreeing that the issue would have been resolved if the Department of State failure hadn’t occurred. She added that she was disappointed Wolf didn’t make the window for survivors part of budget negotiations and that Rozzi’s bill didn’t see a vote before the summer break.

Erica Clayton Wright, a spokesperson for Ward, said the GOP leader’s office is considering and reviewing “all options to give victims their best path to justice.” 

Following a request from Ward, Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office provided the senator with case law and guidance on the issue. In May, a spokesperson for Shapiro said there had been “several meetings between our office and the leader’s office and staff.”

Wright could not provide a definitive answer on whether Rozzi’s bill will see a Senate vote when the Legislature reconvenes in September. But she did say consultations with legal experts and stakeholders are ongoing. She added that victims’ rights have been expanded to include public and private institutions, something victims “overwhelmingly support.”

“As consistently stated, we are evaluating the various points with outside organizations and legal experts,” Wright told the Capital-Star. “Our goal is to arrive at a solution that gives victims the best legal path forward to justice, is constitutional, and is quicker than the constitutional amendment route.”

She added that the General Assembly would not be in this situation if the Wolf administration and Department of State had not made the advertising error.

“Regardless of the mistake, as lawmakers, we have a responsibility to uphold the constitution no matter what path is taken; however, it deserves proper vetting,” Wright said.

In the meantime, Child USA has targeted advertising campaigns planned throughout the summer. With a billboard aimed at Wolf and Ward in Harrisburg and more expected to go up this month, she said: “It’s time to come together, and it’s time to stop protecting Pennsylvania’s predators and start protecting their kids.”

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