Senate GOP won’t fast-track child sex abuse lawsuit ‘window’
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Majority Republicans in the state Senate said Monday they will not employ a rarely used emergency process to amend the Pennsylvania Constitution to give victims of child sexual abuse a two-year window in which to file civil lawsuits, possibly delaying a final vote on the window until 2023.
The collapse of the emergency amendment process followed years of battles in the Legislature, prompted by investigations into child sexual abuse allegations inside Pennsylvania’s Roman Catholic diocese.
Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward said that a “great majority” of Republicans believe that the situation does not meet the criteria for an emergency amendment and would be bogged down by legal challenges that further delay victims from successfully suing for damages.
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s Department of State failed to make the required public advertisements last year of a conventional constitutional amendment, leaving lawmakers a choice between starting the process over or using the emergency amendment process.
Ward said lawmakers will start over.
“The dereliction of duty by the Wolf administration has forced the Pennsylvania Senate to reset the clock on the constitutional amendment,” said Ward, R-Westmoreland, said in a statement. “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.”
That mistake scuttled plans to approve a proposed state constitutional amendment allowing lawsuits over decades-old claims to appear on the May 18 primary ballot for voters to consider.
Ward’s statement emerged in the days after backers acknowledged that support might be lacking for an emergency amendment. House Democratic leaders accused Republicans of being “disrespectful to survivors of childhood sexual abuse” and deciding “to do nothing but point fingers in the name of political games.”
Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, who has championed the two-year lawsuit window, said he was working on a plan to provide it through regular legislation, while the slower conventional constitutional amendment process continues.
“It’s disappointing for the victims, for sure,” said Rozzi, who has spoken publicly about his own abuse at the hands of a parish priest.
The double track approach of a normal bill and an amendment could start quickly, he said.
“I think it’s a very viable option,” Rozzi said, “at least to get something out of the House that way.”
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.
The conventional process of amending the state constitution had made it halfway through the required majority approval by both chambers in two consecutive two-year sessions. Voters have the final say in a referendum, but a referendum on the issue cannot happen now before 2023 without an emergency amendment.
Rather than restart the lengthy procedure, supporters wanted to use the emergency amendment process that has only been employed three times, all involving flooding or storms in the 1970s, according to the Department of State.
Before going down the multiyear road of a constitutional amendment, Democratic lawmakers, Attorney General Josh Shapiro and Wolf had supported creating a two-year window by carving it into state law.
Senate Republicans, however, called it unconstitutional and blocked that avenue in 2018, amid opposition from Roman Catholic bishops and the for-profit insurers. Republicans said that they would instead support a constitutional amendment.
Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, accused Republicans of being “willing to delay justice over a clerical mistake” and argued that delaying justice for victims does, indeed, amount to an emergency.
Costa echoed Rozzi in advocating anew for opening a two-year window by changing the law, combined with a provision to send legal challenges straight to the state Supreme Court for a swift decision on constitutionality.
“To me, it is the quickest and most equitable way to resolve those constitutional issues,” Costa said in an interview.