New Pa. speaker puts sexual abuse lawsuit window atop agenda

Pennsylvania’s newly minted state House speaker is moving to make his major policy goal regarding victims of child sexual abuse to be the chamber’s urgent priority.

Mark Rozzi smiles, standing at a podium.

Pennsylvania Speaker of the House Mark Rozzi is photographed at the speaker's podium, Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023, at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Smith)

Pennsylvania’s new state House speaker declared Friday that no other legislation will be taken up by his chamber until it approves a constitutional amendment granting child sexual abuse victims the power to file what would otherwise be outdated claims.

House Speaker Mark Rozzi, who has spoken of being abused as a boy by a Roman Catholic priest, issued his ultimatum ahead of Monday’s scheduled start of a special session on the issue, ordered by outgoing Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

Rozzi, a Reading area Democrat, was the surprise pick for speaker on Tuesday. He has promised to act as an independent and not caucus with the Democrats.

Rozzi previously led efforts to provide a two-year “window” during which abuse victims may sue, including his work for the 2021 passage in both General Assembly chambers of a constitutional amendment to create that lawsuit period. To become law, the measure must be passed again by both chambers in the 2023-24 session and be approved by voters in a public referendum.

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In a news release, Rozzi said the House and Senate needed to vote by the first week of February to get the referendum on the May primary ballot.

“With that in mind, let me be clear: as long as I am speaker of the House of Representatives, the House will consider no other legislation until the General Assembly passes” the amendment for the second time, he said.

“My friends, it is now 2023. We’ve talked the talk — now it’s time to walk the walk, together, one last time, for the victims of childhood sexual abuse,” Rozzi said in the statement. Earlier Friday he declined comment to reporters outside his Capitol suite.

House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler of Lancaster County said a special session devoted to that single topic was not warranted, noting such an amendment is something the chamber had passed “easily in the past” and can be done as part of the regular legislative business.

“We can do this work in regular session, while also addressing other urgent needs the people of Pennsylvania expect us to address in a timely manner,” Cutler said in a statement. Senate Republican leaders also called the special session unnecessary.

The House Democratic caucus said it supported the move for a special session. Wolf said the Legislature has to act by Jan. 27 to meet public notice requirements for constitutional amendment referendums in time for the primary. The governor leaves office Jan. 17.

Legislative Republicans also have teed up a package of five unrelated constitutional amendments that have also passed both chambers for the first round. This week, GOP members have said they hoped to get at least two of them before voters this spring — a voter ID mandate and the power for lawmakers to cancel regulations without facing a governor’s veto.

Supporters say the lawsuit window would give victims a path to justice, taking into account more recent revelations about molestation by Catholic clergy or involving other institutions.

The long-simmering issue gained traction in Pennsylvania after the state attorney general’s office issued a landmark grand jury report in 2018 on the coverup of child sexual abuse in six of the state’s eight Roman Catholic dioceses.

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Many victims lost the right to sue when they turned 18 or were young adults, depending on Pennsylvania state law at the time. The proposed amendment would let victims sue during a two-year period, no matter when they were abused.

The selection of Rozzi came after Democrats flipped a net of 12 seats in November, the minimum needed to return to majority status after 12 years. But one reelected Democrat died in October and two others left after winning higher offices, giving Republicans 101 seats to 99 for Democrats.

Rozzi was elected with 16 GOP votes, including all seven members of Republican leadership. His district gave 64% of its votes to Democrat Josh Shapiro for governor and 59% to Democrat John Fetterman for U.S. Senate.

Special elections to fill the three vacancies are being prepared for Feb. 7, although Cutler has a pending lawsuit seeking to delay two of them until May. A hearing is planned next week.

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