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From the archives 2021

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

by Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA |

“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

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

The 11-3 vote by the 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 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 this May — 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,” Baker 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 is aimed at allowing 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 the abuse.

Lobbyists for the Catholic Church and the insurance industry have vehemently opposed the bill for years.

The GOP-controlled House of Representatives has approved the two-year window both through legislation and a constitutional amendment in past sessions. But Republicans who control the Senate have previously blocked 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. After each passage, the Department of State, which oversees elections, is required to advertise the proposed amendment in all 67 Pennsylvania counties.

The proposed change is then placed on the ballot for voters to make the ultimate decision.

The legislature, in its 2019-20 session, approved five proposed changes to the state constitution, including one focused on the two-year window.

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 the question could appear on the May ballot.

But the Department of State failed to advertise the 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.

The legislature, meanwhile, has wrestled with the best way to fix the problem since the administration’s blunder came to light. Initially, lawmakers considered using an emergency constitutional amendment — which only needs to be approved during a single session — to get the measure back on track and on the ballot this spring.

When that effort fizzled for lack of support, state Reps. Mark Rozzi (D, Berks) and Jim Gregory (R., Blair), both child sexual abuse survivors, began advocating anew for creating the two-year window through the traditional legislative process. The measure passed the House earlier this month, but faces an uncertain future in the Senate, whose two top Republican leaders — Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman and Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward — are at odds over how to proceed.

Ward, who assumed the majority leader role earlier this year, issued a statement in March that expressed her unequivocal belief that a two-year window required a change to the state constitution, and vowed to relaunch the traditional amendment process.

But Corman, who ascended to the Senate’s top leadership role in January, was pushing behind the scenes for support for the traditional bill.

And survivors, devastated by the Wolf administration’s error and adamant about not wanting to wait at least another two years, worked long hours in recent weeks to convince reluctant senators to change their minds. Several were in the gallery overlooking the Senate floor when the Judiciary Committee voted on the bill.

Like Baker, Corman has in the past said the constitutional amendment was the best path forward. And he signaled that there very likely will be litigation if the legislature approves the two-year window through legislation.

But, Corman said Wednesday, “enough is enough.”

“This General Assembly has already decided on the policy. Whether it’s the constitutional path or whether it’s through the statutory path, we are going to get to the same place,” he said. “So with that in mind, I am prepared to allow the lawyers to have their day, the judges to have their day, and most importantly, the victims of this terrible crime to have their day today.”

Ward declined several requests for comment this week, and a spokesperson refused to say whether she would use her clout as floor leader to block the bill from being brought to a vote. Earlier in the week, during a news conference on a separate matter, Ward again declined to answer questions on the two-year window.

Still, longtime Capitol observers called Wednesday’s committee vote a sea change in the chamber’s position.

Said Attorney General Josh Shapiro, whose office spearheaded the 2018 grand jury report: “We cannot overlook the significance of today’s passage of the civil window statute … Now, it’s time to deliver justice and closure.”

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