HARRISBURG, Pa. (Erie News Now) — On Friday, Governor Tom Wolf ordered a special session for lawmakers to convene Monday and consider a constitutional amendment that allows survivors of childhood sexual abuse to file civil suits against their abuser.
In 2018, after its two-year investigation into widespread sexual abuse of children within six dioceses of the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania, a statewide grand jury recommended four changes to Pennsylvania law:
– Eliminate the criminal statute of limitations for sexually abusing children.
– Create a two-year “civil window” for child sex abuse victims who couldn’t file lawsuits before.
– Clarify the penalties for a continuing failure to report child abuse.
– Prohibit “non-disclosure” agreements regarding cooperation with law enforcement.
All but one was signed into law by Gov. Wolf in 2019, the two-year “civil window” for victims.
According to the 2018 Grand Jury Report the current law gives child sex abuse victims 12 years to sue, once they turn 18, but victims in their 30s and older fall under a different law; they only get two years. The grand jury called the law “unacceptable.”
The push in Harrisburg to provide the window has been two-pronged: Either providing the window through legislation, or via a constitutional amendment.
Legislative efforts, like House Bill 951 of the 2021-22 session, sponsored by Representative Mark Rozzi, have seen bipartisan support. For Rozzi, a survivor or clergy abuse at 13, it’s a personal matter.
“I know firsthand the trauma that comes with surviving such a vicious attack,” said Rozzi, the recently-elected Speaker of the House.
Rozzi’s bill has seen consistent opposition from Republican Senate leadership, who have refused to put the bill up for a full vote, even after it passed the House and made it through committee in the upper chamber.
“They have failed the children, the adult victims and the citizens of this Commonwealth,” said Rozzi, pointing the finger at Senate leadership back in April of 2022.
However, those who are opposed to the bill say the legislation is unconstitutional, and that the best path forward is with the second approach: a constitutional amendment. Since 2019, it’s been a bit of a rocky path, proving to be easier said than done.
Proposed constitutional amendments must pass in two consecutive sessions of the state legislature before being placed on the ballot for voters to decide. Proposed amendments must also be properly advertised by the Department of State. Specifically, the department is constitutionally required to advertise the wording of the proposed constitutional amendment in two newspapers in every county, in each of the three months before the next election.
The House and Senate did pass a constitutional amendment to provide the window in 2019. However, the Department of State failed to properly advertise the language of the amendment, preventing it from reaching the ballot in 2020 and bringing the process back to square one.
In 2021, the joint resolution proposing an amendment passed both chambers, again, meaning it would need to be approved for a second time in both chambers during the 2023-24 session before heading on the ballot.
In late August, Governor Wolf announced an agreement between House and Senate leaders from both parties to prioritize the constitutional amendment in early 2023.
“I am committed to making sure this happens. They convinced me that that they’re serious about this, and I believe them,” said Wolf in early September.
With only a second approval needed to cross the finish line, the joint resolution sponsored by Rep. Jim Gregory (R-Blair), a survivor as well, is a top priority for the top House lawmaker.
“As long as I am speaker, the House will consider no other legislation until the General Assembly passes the language of Representative Gregory’s constitutional amendment,” said Rozzi on Friday shortly after Governor Wolf called today’s special session to consider the proposed amendment.
Today, the Senate did not consider the proposal and gaveled out of session shortly after beginning it. The House lasted about 30 minutes before leaving for recess, which was extended several times throughout the day and into the evening. Eventually, it was announced that no voting in the House would occur Monday night, Tuesday nor Wednesday.
“Despite working all day to reach an agreement to move this Special Session forward and to pass a constitutional amendment that survivors of childhood sexual abuse so desperately need and deserve, it has become apparent that the Democratic and Republican Caucuses are too far apart to proceed. Party politics must take a back seat to saving the lives of survivors of childhood sexual assault,” said Speaker Rozzi in a press release Monday evening. “In an effort to move things forward and to get Democrats and Republicans talking again, I am creating a workgroup of 3 Republicans and 3 Democrats of varied interests from across the Commonwealth to sit down and find a way forward,” Rozzi added.
Each House caucus provided statements after today’s session.
Joint statement by House Republican leadership:
“The House Republican Caucus was at the Capitol all day today, ready to work and organize both special session and regular House session. We had rules, we had the votes, and we were ready to proceed with the people’s business. It is disappointing that the most basic organizational issues continue to obstruct the work of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. It is our hope that we can proceed the way we should have from the beginning: in regular session, with rules that receive engagement from both caucuses, and with the well-being of the people of Pennsylvania—and not individual interests—as our first priority.”
Statement from House Democratic Caucus:
“The House Democratic Caucus remains committed to helping survivors of child sexual abuse and willing to do whatever it takes to get this measure across the finish line. We are disappointed in Republicans’ reluctance to put the politics aside and do what is right for Pennsylvanians, especially after having publicly agreed last August to swiftly advance this measure in the new session. Our members are here and ready to work and we appreciate the Speaker’s action to move this critical issue forward. We will work alongside our Republican counterparts on Speaker Rozzi’s work group to bridge our divides to ensure justice for survivors of childhood sexual abuse.”
Lawmakers have until the first week of February to pass the amendment in order for it to appear on the ballot in the May primary.