HARRISBURG, Pa. (Erie News Now) – Governor Tom Wolf has announced that he, and legislative leaders in the General Assembly, have reached an agreement to prioritize a constitutional amendment early in the 2023-24 legislative session that would establish a two-year window for victims of childhood sexual abuse.
The two-year window allows victims of abuse to file civil lawsuits against their abuser if the abuse took place outside of the statute of limitations.
The initial amendment was previously approved by the General Assembly in 2019 and would have been on the ballot for voters to decide this legislative session. However, a systemic failure by the Department of State resulted in the amendment being tossed and prompted the resignation of former Secretary of State, Kathy Boockvar.
“I want to first reiterate my deep regret and sincerest apologies to victims for the process error that prevented this issue from being decided upon by the voters this legislative session. I have fought for an immediate legislative solution to this issue and have been working with legislators to determine the clearest path forward,” said Gov. Wolf in a press release Wednesday evening.
The error forced lawmakers and advocates back to square-one.
In Pennsylvania, constitutional amendments must be approved during two consecutive legislative sessions before being placed on the ballot.
For years, advocates and lawmakers have called on leaders to establish the window with legislation, which they say would have been quicker and more direct. House Bill 951 saw bipartisan support in the House, when it passed in Apr. 2021 149-52. The legislation advanced to the Senate and received a bipartisan vote 11-3 to move it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. However, the legislation never made it to the Senate floor for a vote. Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland) has been firm on her belief that the constitutional amendment, not the legislation, is the best path forward.
“Without question, all victims of childhood sexual abuse should have the ability to face their abusers. As I have consistently stated, the constitutional amendment is the strongest legal position to bring closure to this matter for all victims (public and private),” said Sen. Ward.
Earlier this year, Gov. Wolf said he would call a special session if the Senate failed to act on the legislation.
“The Senate should act right now to pass House Bill 951. If the Senate fails to act to support survivors, I will call a special session to bring them back to Harrisburg and get this done because survivors deserve to have this issue resolved,” said Gov. Wolf at a rally for victims this April.
However, like Ward, Wolf now believes the best path to justice is through the amendment.
“After speaking directly with legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle, I’m pleased that they have committed to prioritize second passage of a constitutional amendment early next session. I am grateful for this agreement so that survivors can seek a path forward toward justice,” said Gov. Wolf.
The amendment was approved, again, by the General Assembly in March 2021, and needs to pass one more time in the 2023-34 legislative session before making it on the ballot.
“The Pennsylvania House has taken up and passed this proposed constitutional amendment in three different legislative sessions,” said House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R-Centre/Mifflin). “Next session we will once again remind our caucus of the unique circumstances that lead to the fourth consideration of this constitutional amendment and the need to continue to lead on an issue so important to many victims and families across Pennsylvania,” Benninghoff added.
“Remaining true to our commitment, we plan to take the next step in the constitutional amendment process in the next legislative session, just as we have in previous legislative sessions, and consistent with the multiple legislative actions already taken to protect children and families from such heinous acts,” said Ward.
The earliest the amendment could appear on the ballot is the 2023 primary election.
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