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The Capitol

Wolf asks Pa. legislature to advance relief for child sex abuse survivors during special session

by Stephen Caruso of Spotlight PA |

Gov. Tom Wolf (right) signed a bill in 2019 regarding child victims of sex abuse while Mark Rozzi looked on.
Commonwealth Media Services

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HARRISBURG — In likely one of his last acts in office, Gov. Tom Wolf has asked the Pennsylvania legislature to gather for a special session Monday to pass a constitutional amendment allowing adult victims of childhood sexual abuse to sue the perpetrators.

Newly minted state House Speaker Mark Rozzi responded Friday with a vow to halt all other chamber action until that issue is addressed.

The request capped a chaotic week inside the Capitol and spawned further conflict just a few days into the legislature’s new session, as Republicans called the move unnecessary and appeared unlikely to heed Wolf’s call.

In a statement, Wolf said his request is “a critical step to allow the General Assembly to focus their work on this important, and potentially life-saving, task.”

“No survivor should be denied the chance to hold their abuser accountable, regardless of how much time has passed,” the Democratic governor said.

The call was immediately backed by Rozzi, a Berks County Democrat who pledged to govern as an independent after a Republican-authored deal handed him the gavel.

Rozzi has made advocating for survivors of child sexual abuse his signature issue since being elected in 2012. In a statement, he said he would not move any other legislation until the General Assembly considers the proposed amendment.

“For the last 10 years I have fought this battle as a rank-and-file member. Promises have been made. Hope has been raised,” said Rozzi, who was raped as a teen by a Catholic priest. “But time after time, at the end of the day, for whatever reason, justice has been denied.”

Under the state constitution, the governor can call a special session “whenever in his opinion the public interest requires” one. During that time, the legislature can only pass bills related to the requested topic.

The proposed constitutional amendment has broad, bipartisan support, and legislative leadership in both parties had previously agreed to prioritize the final passage of the amendment this year.

But considering it during a special session would rob legislative Republicans of leverage to accomplish other goals, such as passing other constitutional amendments to expand voter ID requirements or restrict the state’s regulatory process.

Combining topics into one bill is frequently used in the General Assembly to pass controversial policies, and at least one Republican has publicly suggested that such a deal was part of Rozzi’s ascent from the back bench to the speakership.

Top GOP lawmakers in the state House and Senate released statements saying they prefer to do this work in a regular session, when they can consider more than one issue at a time.

“It is not in the best interest of the Commonwealth to do this work in special session,” state House GOP Leader Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) said.

He noted that Republicans have already committed to passing the abuse amendment, but that “we can do this work in regular session, while also addressing other urgent needs the people of Pennsylvania expect us to address in a timely manner.”

In a joint statement, top state Senate Republicans Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland) and Joe Pittman (R., Indiana) were even more explicit about their priorities.

“It is imperative that we work together to ensure constitutional amendments for voter identification, legislative review of regulations, election audits, and statute of limitations for child sexual abuse survivors can all be presented to voters,” they said.

The proposed special session topic — a two-year period in which victims of childhood sexual abuse can file civil lawsuits against those who harmed them and the institutions that shielded the abusers — has been long sought by survivors.

For the past decade, survivors and their allies pushed to pass a bill that would open a statutory window to take effect immediately. But Republican leadership in the state Senate, joined by lobbyists from the Catholic Church and the insurance industry, successfully blocked such legislation, arguing it would be unconstitutional.

Stakeholders then settled on the idea of sending a constitutional amendment to the voters as a compromise that avoided the legality concerns. However, such amendments take much longer to pass than laws — they must be approved by the General Assembly in consecutive two-year sessions in identical forms before they go to voters for final approval.

The compromise amendment quickly and near-unanimously sailed through the General Assembly in 2019. But an error by the Wolf administration derailed the effort. The Department of State failed to advertise the amendment as is legally required before holding the final referendum, a foul-up attributed to “internal systemic failures.”

The Democratic caucus praised Wolf’s call, as did state Rep. Jim Gregory (R., Blair), one of Rozzi’s closest GOP allies and a main backer of the amendment.

In a statement, Gregory, who was also a victim of childhood abuse, backed the special session and said it would correct “the devastating error from two years ago.”

“The time for politics will come. But today, the people of Pennsylvania should recognize that Speaker Rozzi is not waiting to govern,” Gregory said.

Wolf requested that the session begin at noon on Monday, Jan. 9 and finish by Friday, Jan. 27.

In an email, a spokesperson for the Department of State, which oversees advertising of constitutional amendments, said that the amendment must pass by the end of January in order to be on the May 16 primary ballot.

“We will need additional lead time to draft the ballot question and obtain the plain language statement from the Attorney General,” the spokesperson said.

Spotlight PA reporters Katie Meyer and Kate Huangpu contributed reporting.

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