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State agency bungles ballot referendum for child sex victims

February 1, 2021 GMT
FILE In this Nov. 5, 2020 file photo, Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar speaks during a news conference in Harrisburg, Pa. A proposed constitutional amendment allowing lawsuits for otherwise outdated child sexual abuse claims was not advertised as required, delaying the required voter referendum for at least two years. The Department of State issued a news release Monday, Feb. 1, 2021, calling it “simple human error” and apologized. As a result, Boockvar is leaving her job, and the inspector general will be looking into the matter. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)
FILE In this Nov. 5, 2020 file photo, Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar speaks during a news conference in Harrisburg, Pa. A proposed constitutional amendment allowing lawsuits for otherwise outdated child sexual abuse claims was not advertised as required, delaying the required voter referendum for at least two years. The Department of State issued a news release Monday, Feb. 1, 2021, calling it “simple human error” and apologized. As a result, Boockvar is leaving her job, and the inspector general will be looking into the matter. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Some victims of child sexual abuse might have to wait two years or more to pursue legal claims because of a major bureaucratic bungle that prompted angry denunciations across the political spectrum Monday and the resignation of Pennsylvania’s top state elections official.

A proposed state constitutional amendment allowing lawsuits over decadesold claims — prompted by investigations into child sexual abuse allegations inside Pennsylvania’s Roman Catholic diocese — wasn’t advertised as required and so cannot appear on the ballot this spring, the Wolf administration disclosed Monday.

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Pennsylvania’s Department of State called it “simple human error” and apologized, saying the mistake was discovered late last week.

As a result, no statewide referendum to add it to the state constitution may be possible before 2023, Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar is leaving her job Friday and both the state inspector general and the Legislature will look into the matter.

“The delay caused by this human error will be heartbreaking for thousands of survivors of childhood sexual assault, advocates and legislators, and I join the Department of State in apologizing to you,” Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf said in a statement. “I share your anger and frustration that this happened, and I stand with you in your fight for justice.”

The admission followed years of battles in the Legislature.

The proposed constitutional amendment would give now-adult victims of childhood sexual abuse a two-year reprieve — a so-called window — from time limits in state law that otherwise bar them from suing perpetrators or institutions that may have covered it up.

Many lost the right to sue when they turned 18 or were young adults, depending on state law at the time. Under the proposed amendment, they would have two years to sue over their alleged abuse, no matter how long ago it occurred.

“I’m just shocked,” said state Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, a prime backer of the amendment who has told of his rape by a priest when he was 13. “I just can’t believe that this is where we are at right now in this process, that the secretary of state has dropped the ball.”

Jennifer Storm, who served as Wolf’s appointee as the state’s victim advocate, said survivors were “disgusted and frustrated.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, called it a “catastrophic and epic failure.” Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, called it “shameful.”

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Democrats, including Shapiro, said it was imperative to instead immediately pass the two-year window as regular legislation. Republicans had blocked that avenue in 2018, calling it unconstitutional, but agreed to allow a proposal to amend the constitution.

House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, proposed fast-tracking the constitutional amendment through an emergency provision that requires two-thirds votes of each chamber.

Republicans bitterly chastised Boockvar and called for investigations, but said it was too early to determine whether there is an avenue to avoid a two-year wait.

“We’ll have to look at our options,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre. “Clearly there is a sensitivity to this that everyone wants to help victims get justice, but unfortunately the incompetence of this Department of State and the secretary thereof to put them in this position is just unconscionable.”

Constitutional amendments must pass both chambers in two successive two-year legislative sessions before going before voters in a statewide referendum for final approval. It had been on track to appear on May 18′s primary ballot.

The proposals also have to be advertised in newspapers after passing in each two-year session, but that did not happen for the proposed amendment last fall. The Wolf administration vowed to install new controls and tracking to ensure the mistake is not repeated.

The Department of State said its workers “advertised other proposed constitutional amendments passed during the last legislative session, but through simple human error mistakenly failed to include this proposed constitutional amendment in the advertisements.”

As Wolf’s top elections official, Boockvar became a political lightning rod for Republicans as she played a prominent role in the hotly contested 2020 presidential election in Pennsylvania, conducted with new voting machines and a greatly expanded vote-by-mail regimen. She declined comment Monday and Wolf did not say whether he had demanded her resignation.

Victims of childhood sexual abuse have long sought another chance to sue in Pennsylvania, spurred by investigations over the past two decades into Pennsylvania’s Roman Catholic dioceses. But repeated efforts in the Legislature to change the law had failed.

In 2018, a landmark state grand jury report gave the fight new life, recommending lawmakers pass the two-year window.

The House of Representatives passed it overwhelmingly weeks later, and it had support from Wolf, Shapiro, Senate Democratic leaders and victim advocates.

However, Senate Republicans blocked a floor vote on it, amid opposition from Catholic bishops and insurers.

The state’s dioceses subsequently opened temporary victim compensation funds and lawmakers later agreed to set in motion the multi-year process for amending the constitution to allow the two-year window.