Relief for child sex abuse survivors revived in Pa. Senate after Wolf administration error

“If you believe as strongly as I do that abuse victims have been denied a fair remedy for far too long, then we are obligated to attempt every avenue to deliver a just result,

“If you believe as strongly as I do that abuse victims have been denied a fair remedy for far too long, then we are obligated to attempt every avenue to deliver a just result," said Sen. Lisa Baker, the chair of the chamber's Judiciary Committee. (Commonwealth Media Services)

This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.

A key state Senate committee on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved legislation to temporarily allow survivors of decades-old child sexual abuse to sue their perpetrators, an alternative path to justice after a Wolf administration error derailed a previous effort.

The 11-3 vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee positions the bill for a historic floor debate as early as next week, a win for survivors and their advocates who have been pushing for it since the child sexual abuse cover-up scandal that enveloped the Catholic Church in the early 2000s.

In bringing the bill to a vote Wednesday, the committee’s chair, Sen. Lisa Baker (R., Luzerne), acknowledged long-standing objections by some Republican colleagues in the chamber who believe that such a change can only legally be made by amending the state constitution, a lengthy and time-consuming process.

But she noted that the legislature had already gone down that path — one that was set to end with voters weighing in on the question in the May primary — only to be thwarted by a “colossal failure” by the Department of State.

“If you believe as strongly as I do that abuse victims have been denied a fair remedy for far too long, then we are obligated to attempt every avenue to deliver a just result,” she said, adding that she too once believed that amending the state constitution was the only correct way to make the change.

But she added: “When all is said and done, I intend to be able to look the victims in the eye and look myself in the mirror of my own conscience.”

The measure, which could be brought to a floor vote as early as next week, is aimed at helping survivors of child sexual abuse who are too old, under the statute of limitations, to sue. It would open a two-year window for them to bring civil suits against their abusers and any institutions that covered up for them.

The bill has for years been vehemently opposed by lobbyists for the Catholic Church and the insurance industry.

The GOP-controlled House of Representatives has approved the two-year window both through traditional legislation and through a constitutional amendment in past sessions. But Republicans who control the Senate have blocked such a traditional bill from being considered on the floor, and only recently permitted a vote to make the change through a constitutional amendment.

Under state law, any changes to the Pennsylvania Constitution must pass the legislature in two consecutive sessions. The proposed change is then placed on the ballot for voters to make the ultimate decision.

After each passage, the Department of State, which oversees elections, is required to advertise the proposed amendment in all 67 Pennsylvania counties.

The legislature, in its 2019-20 session, approved five proposed changes to the state constitution. One was to provide a two-year reprieve in the statute of limitations so older sexual abuse survivors could sue.

The measure gained momentum after the 2018 release of a blistering, statewide grand jury report that documented decades of child sexual abuse and cover-ups in nearly every Catholic diocese in Pennsylvania. Lawmakers were on track to approve it for a second time earlier this year so that the question could appear on the May ballot.

But the Department of State, which oversees elections in Pennsylvania, failed to advertise the two-year window proposal after the legislature approved it for the first time. The error, discovered early this year, led to the resignation of the department’s chief, Kathy Boockvar.

Wolf apologized for the mistake, which he said was caused by “human error,” though his administration has refused to release details. The state inspector general is investigating the matter.

Get the WHYY app!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal