Time is running out to get sexual abuse amendment on Pa.’s November ballot

Mistakes and political fights have long delayed an amendment to give sexual abuse survivors a chance to sue the perpetrators. Now, the effort might fail again.

Pa. capitol building

Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg. (Amanda Berg for Spotlight PA)

This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.

A long-awaited constitutional amendment that would give survivors of childhood sexual abuse a chance to sue their abusers will not be on the November ballot unless lawmakers advance it in the next month.

Members of the divided legislature remain deadlocked. They broadly agree that voters should be given an opportunity to consider such a proposal, but are divided on how to advance it.

Democrats who control the state House want to send to voters a single question about opening the lawsuit window, while Republican leaders say the abuse amendment should be advanced alongside other GOP priorities, including an expanded voter ID requirement.

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The issue has been before the body for nearly two decades and came tantalizingly close to reaching voters several years ago only to be derailed by a Wolf administration error.

Survivors say the lack of movement leaves them without closure.

“Our elected leaders are snubbing us, and it feels horrible,” Shaun Dougherty, a Western Pennsylvania activist for survivors, told Spotlight PA.

The proposed amendment would give adults who were sexually abused as children a limited period to seek monetary damages in court from those who abused them or protected the perpetrator.

A 2019 law increased the maximum age at which people abused as children can bring a civil claim against their abusers, from 30 to 55. However, people abused longer ago have little recourse.

Many survivors also say that when they could have legally sued, they weren’t yet ready to publicly confront their abuse.

The commonwealth’s process for approving constitutional amendments is cumbersome. First, the General Assembly must pass identical language during two consecutive two-year sessions. The Department of State is required to run ads in newspapers about the amendment after each legislative passage.

Once those requirements are met, the amendment is sent to voters for consideration.

In an email, a spokesperson for the Department of State said the agency must have ads in papers by Aug. 5 to meet the requirement. Writing a plain language description of the amendment and placing the ads requires additional lead time.

That leaves little time for lawmakers, who are in the thick of budget negotiations and preparing for the November election, to give the amendment the second round of approval it needs.

Should they fail to act in the next month, lawmakers will have one last shot to pass the amendment before having to start the process over. If passed by the end of this legislative session in November, the proposal would appear on the 2025 primary ballot.

If not, the amendment process will need to start over again, meaning the soonest the question could appear on a ballot is 2027.

Good government advocates and Democrats generally oppose putting proposed constitutional amendments on odd-year primary ballots because of low turnout.

State Rep. Mark Rozzi (D., Berks), an abuse survivor and champion of the issue, said he prefers not to go that route, worried that big-money opposition by the measure’s opponents would be more influential in a low-turnout election.

He added that the general election would have “more sane voters” interested in the underlying policy instead of politics.

Lawmakers could also create a lawsuit window through a traditional statute, an idea opposed by some Republican leaders who believe such a law would be unconstitutional. Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro, who would need to sign such a measure, says he supports either path.

The state House recently moved on that front, amending an unrelated state Senate bill this week to include a retroactive window. Members sent it back to the upper chamber for consideration in a bipartisan vote Wednesday, with all Democrats and more than 40 Republicans in favor.

The change was sponsored by state Rep. Jim Gregory (R., Blair), a survivor of childhood abuse who has championed the issue since being elected to the legislature in 2018.

“We have an opportunity to write a new ending to this story,” Gregory said on the state House floor.

Tied up with unrelated issues

Previous sessions have seen fiery debates on the statute of limitations amendment amid a wave of lobbying by the state’s Catholic Conference and insurers, who feared the price tag of the suits and argued it would be unconstitutional.

Things started to shift after then-Attorney General Josh Shapiro released a 2018 grand jury report documenting how the Catholic Church covered up child abuse by priests. It led to wide bipartisan support in the state House for a civil window.

Republican leadership in the state Senate, echoing outside groups’ arguments, said that implementing a retroactive window through statute would run afoul of the state’s constitution and bankrupt nonprofits, but relented to a deal that would have it pass as an amendment, not as legislation.

Heading into this legislative session, it appeared the biggest conflicts over the amendment might have been resolved. It received wide bipartisan support in prior floor votes and was only kept off the ballot in 2021 because of a crucial advertising error by the Department of State.

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But the session brought new complications due to largely unrelated politics. The state Senate, controlled by Republicans, has said it will only advance the lawsuit window if the proposal also authorizes referendums on expanding voter ID requirements and making it easier for the legislature to reject executive regulations.

In 2022, the legislature, both chambers of which were at the time controlled by Republicans, advanced the voter ID and regulatory amendments. Should the state House agree to advance them, they would be presented to voters as separate ballot questions.

However, state House Democrats have rejected rolling the measures together, instead arguing that all three should be considered on their own merits.

Both sides are dug in.

State Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R., Indiana) told reporters in June that he would not allow a vote on the measure “unless our friends in the House see things our way.” Rozzi countered to Spotlight PA that it’s “really up to Joe Pittman, whether or not he wants to release the hostages.”

The end of this legislative session will also bring with it a sea change for advocates of the lawsuit window — the state House’s two biggest champions of the amendment, Gregory and Rozzi, will not be state lawmakers in 2025.

Gregory lost his primary to a more conservative challenger, while Rozzi decided not to run for reelection.

Gregory and Rozzi have championed the issue in recent years, although they had a falling out over a short-lived deal, engineered by Gregory, that saw Rozzi ascend to the speakership with GOP support. Rozzi stepped down a short time later, handing control to another Democrat.

Gregory publicly split with Rozzi over the deal. But both lawmakers told Spotlight PA they’ve since talked; Gregory added that Rozzi apologized to him earlier this year.

“He didn’t have to do that, but I always knew he would,” Gregory said.

However, the issue won’t be without legislative advocates. Two lawmakers, state Reps. Maureen Madden (D., Monroe) and La’Tasha Mayes (D., Allegheny), told their own stories of surviving abuse last year.

Rozzi added that Democrat Nathan Davidson, who is running for a state House seat the party is likely to win, has also expressed interest in backing the proposal.

Davidson said he hopes the statute of limitations window “isn’t a bill that I have to sponsor next session,” but he’s already talked with Mayes about working together on it.

“It should have been completed [last] session,” Davidson told Spotlight PA. “But here we are, it’s still not finished. Every year, we lose more survivors. And every year, there’s more victims.”

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