Pa. Senate GOP won’t fast-track child sex abuse lawsuit ‘window’

Ward announced Monday that the Wolf administration's failure to advertise a proposed constitutional amendment doesn't justify using the emergency amendment process.

Closeup of the Pennsylvania Capitol

The Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Monday, March 22, 2021. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

Majority Republicans in the state Senate announced 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.

Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward issued a statement that said the matter “does not meet the emergency status criteria and does not correct the failure by the Wolf Administration as it still does not properly vet this matter with the public.”

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. “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.”

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The emergency amendment proposal became an option after Wolf’s administration revealed six weeks ago it had committed a massive mistake and failed to arrange the mandatory advertisement.

That scuttled plans to approve a proposed state constitutional amendment allowing lawsuits over decades-old claims — prompted by investigations into child sexual abuse allegations inside Pennsylvania’s Roman Catholic diocese — to appear on the May 18 primary ballot for voters to consider.

Ward’s statement emerged in the days after lawmakers acknowledged that support was lacking for an emergency amendment.

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.

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“I think it’s a very viable option,” Rozzi said, “at least to get something out of the House that way.”

The collapse of the emergency amendment process 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.

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.

Some lawmakers opposed using the emergency process for the child sexual abuse lawsuit window, arguing it would set a bad precedent and the facts did not warrant it.

The Wolf administration’s mishandling of the previous amendment caused Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar to resign early last month. She has described it as an administrative error.

Democratic lawmakers, Attorney General Josh Shapiro and Wolf had supported creating a two-year window by carving it into state law.

Senate Republicans, however, blocked that avenue, amid opposition from Roman Catholic bishops and the for-profit insurers, and said that they would instead support a constitutional amendment.

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