The ceiling of the main Rotunda inside Pennsylvania’s Capitol building. (Photo by Amanda Berg for the Capital-Star).
(*This story was updated at 12:30 p.m. and 2:18 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 24, 2023, to include additional reporting.)
The Pennsylvania House of Representatives approved long-delayed relief for survivors of childhood sexual abuse on Friday. But proposals letting now-adults file civil lawsuits against their abusers still face challenges in the GOP-controlled Senate.
Lawmakers in the lower chamber, which now has a narrow 102-101 Democratic majority, voted to approve two pieces of legislation — a constitutional amendment and a standalone bill — that would let survivors file otherwise outdated lawsuits against their abusers and the institutions that covered up their crimes.
The House voted 161-40 to approve the proposed constitutional change, House Bill 1, and 134-67 to approve a proposal, House Bill 2, to change state law and temporarily open a two-year window for survivors to file civil lawsuits.
After years of reluctance in the General Assembly, the constitutional amendment proposing a two-year window received bipartisan support and should have appeared on the May 2021 ballot. However, a failure by the Wolf administration to advertise amendment language in time stopped it from appearing before voters, and lawmakers restarted the lengthy and costly amendment process after a proposed change in state law to give survivors relief stalled in the state Senate.
House Speaker Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, vowed to prioritize the two-year window while leading the chamber. He later found himself at the center of a partisan battle over operating rules, leaving the House unable to vote on — let alone pass — any legislation. Additionally, Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair, who nominated Rozzi to lead the chamber, later called for his resignation because he failed to register as “not affiliated” with a political party.
Gregory, also a survivor of sexual abuse, said on Friday that the constitutional amendment, which he sponsored, was the best path for survivors. He did vote in favor of both bills.
“This has been a tumultuous time in the House, and that is OK and normal during times of transition,” Rozzi said, addressing the full chamber after voting concluded. “But despite our procedural bickering, at the end of the day, when it was time to be there for victims, the House once again came together in a bipartisan way.”
Both proposals go to the Senate for consideration, where they’ll likely see pushback from the chamber’s Republican majority.
In January, the upper chamber approved a three-part constitutional amendment package that includes a two-year window for survivors. However, lawmakers bundled the proposal with voter identification requirements for every election and expanded legislative authority over regulatory disapproval.
Nearly every Senate Democrat voted against the amendment package, Senate Bill 1, but not because they opposed the proposed window. Instead, they wanted to consider the proposals as individual bills, just as voters would if they appeared on the ballot.
When efforts to separate the amendments failed, Democrats accused Republicans of using survivors to advance their legislative agenda and questioned whether a package would violate Pennsylvania’s single-subject rule for legislation, which stops lawmakers from grouping multiple unrelated subjects into one bill. A constitutional amendment proposing a bill of rights for crime victims, which voters approved in 2019, was ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court in 2021 for this very reason.
Through a spokesperson, Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, told the Capital-Star earlier this month that the upper chamber fulfilled its commitment to passing a two-year window. After Friday’s House votes, he reiterated that attitude and urged the lower chamber to vote on Senate Bill 1 as presented last month.
“There is no valid justification for preventing voters from having a direct voice on voter identification, regulation reform, and opening the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse survivors through constitutional questions,” Pittman said in a statement. “The only reason these questions will not appear on the May ballot is because of the inaction of the speaker of the House.”
In his remarks before the Senate approved the proposal in January, Pittman said it would be the “final time” the chamber addressed the issue. He also noted that three ballot questions — two about the executive branch’s emergency powers and one prohibiting discrimination based on race and ethnicity — appeared on the May 2021 primary ballot. Voters approved the proposed amendments, which passed the General Assembly in one bill before making it on the ballot.
At a press conference after session concluded for the week, Rozzi called on the Senate to take up the bills.
“It’s time for the Senate to take a vote and to give the survivors of the commonwealth what they so deserve,” Rozzi said. “We have three branches of government for a reason. Let the courts decide whether it’s constitutional or not.”
Rozzi said that he hasn’t spoken with Senate leadership about the bills, but has discussed the matter with Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat.
“I have full faith in our governor to have that conversation with the Senate to get this done for victims and survivors so they can finally have their day,” Rozzi said.
Lawmakers in both chambers return to Harrisburg next week.
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