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Prospects are dimming in the legislature to employ a rarely used, emergency tactic so voters can decide this spring whether survivors of decades-old sexual abuse should have a chance to sue the perpetrators and institutions that covered up the crimes.
The state House of Representatives left the Capitol on Wednesday without a final vote on a measure that would have resurrected the hard-fought referendum on whether to give those survivors, who are time-barred under the statute of limitations, a two-year reprieve to pursue civil litigation.
That question was initially set to be decided by voters in the May primary. But in a stunning admission last month, Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration acknowledged that it had failed to take the proper administrative steps to get the referendum on the ballot, devastating survivors and their advocates who have waited years for a resolution. The mistake forced the resignation of the state’s top election official and prompted an investigation by the state’s inspector general.
In an effort to correct the problem, the House of Representatives last month said it would pursue an emergency constitutional amendment to get the referendum back on track. But in recent weeks, Republicans who control the chamber have split on whether the emergency route is appropriate or even legal, dashing hopes that it can pass in time.
To appear on the May ballot, the legislature would have to approve the emergency amendment by March 24, according to state officials.
House GOP leaders late Wednesday positioned the bill for a potential final vote next week, after Democrats publicly lambasted them for refusing to take action.
So we got some ugly stuff happening in the PA House. We were promised a vote on the Rep. Gregory and @RepRozzi bill to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot. That promised has been reneged af the moment.
— Mike Schlossberg (@MikeSchlossberg) March 17, 2021
A spokesperson for House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre) made no commitments that the measure would be brought up for a vote when the chamber returns to session Monday. When pressed by a reporter Wednesday afternoon on whether a vote will take place, Benninghoff replied, “Well, we have a lot of things on the agenda, and we are continuing to work on these.”
“They have absolutely no courage to do the right thing,” said Rep. Mark Rozzi (D., Berks), a survivor of child sexual abuse who has been at the forefront of efforts to pass the two-year reprieve. “I don’t believe these politicians deserve to be in this building.”
Responding to criticism from Democrats, Benninghoff said it’s his caucus that has ”pushed this initiative through.”
“And I think we’ve shown time and time again that we are committed to this issue,” he said.
Even if the House negotiates a deal in the coming days, the measure still has to pass the Senate. Republican leaders there have not committed to backing it, although a key Senate committee earlier this week gave it a first approval.
Still, some GOP senators raised concerns during the hearing about whether creating the two-year reprieve in the statute of limitations amounts to an emergency.
Emergency amendments can be used in situations where “the safety or welfare of the commonwealth requires prompt” change, according to the state constitution. Unlike traditional constitutional amendments, which require the legislature’s approval in two consecutive sessions, an emergency amendment needs to be voted on only once in both chambers (though it requires two-thirds, rather than majority, approval).
Legislative staff noted that it’s only been used three times since the 1970s, each time to address disastrous floods.
In an interview Wednesday, Rozzi said the legislature has the ability to determine what constitutes an emergency. Survivors, he said, have waited more than 15 years for a resolution on creating a two-year reprieve. Over that time, some have turned to alcohol or drugs. Others, he said, have died by suicide.
Rep. Jim Gregory (R., Blair), a child sexual abuse survivor who has also championed the two-year reprieve, said getting so close to the finish line, only to have it undone by “human error,” created a fresh wave of desperation in the survivor community.
He himself, he said, felt the pain when it became clear earlier this week that the emergency constitutional amendment was in peril. He said he decided to attend Wednesday’s voting session remotely because he was so upset by the decision not to bring the measure to a final vote.
“The toll this has taken,” he said, his voice trailing off. “I didn’t realize it until we couldn’t get it done.”
The push to allow a temporary legal reprieve for older survivors has been decades in the making. It gained momentum after the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General released a scathing grand jury report in 2018 that documented how top Roman Catholic leaders in Pennsylvania covered up decades of child sex abuse involving more than 1,000 victims and hundreds of priests.
The report led to a tense debate in the state Capitol over the best way to help child sexual abuse survivors who were too old, under the state’s statute of limitations, to sue over the long-ago abuse.
Many Republicans in the state Senate opposed opening a two-year window through traditional legislation, saying they believed that route would violate provisions in the Pennsylvania Constitution that prevent retroactive punishment. Ultimately, the legislature agreed to push the measure through as an amendment to the state constitution, with Republicans arguing that it would be legally sound and hard to overturn in the courts.
The legislature passed the measure in the 2019-20 session and was on track to pass it again last month when Wolf acknowledged the administrative error.
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