Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters.
HARRISBURG — Survivors of childhood sexual abuse must continue waiting for their day in court after the Pennsylvania General Assembly failed to meet the deadline to get a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot.
This failure continues nearly two decades of idleness, intrigues, and slip-ups that have blocked a measure that would give thousands of survivors a two-year window to seek monetary damages against their abusers and the institutions that shielded the accused. The window is necessary because the statute of limitations for those individuals to file suit expired.
The effort has taken different forms and has received various levels of attention in that time. But despite bipartisan support among current state lawmakers for the measure, disputes between the Democratic and Republican caucuses over whether to bundle the proposal with other amendments — including one that would expand voter ID requirements — sank its chances this year.
“I want to see victims have their day to speak and address what happened to them,” state Rep. Jim Gregory (R., Blair), a survivor, told Spotlight PA. “They are not seeking financial gain. They are seeking closure.”
In order for a proposed constitutional amendment to reach voters, the legislature must approve the same language in two consecutive sessions. The Pennsylvania Department of State is also required to advertise the proposal.
In an email this week, the Department of State told Spotlight PA it is too late to draft, approve, and publish the legally required notices in newspapers to hold a constitutional referendum this year.
“Any amendment must be advertised in newspapers across the Commonwealth for the first time no later than Aug. 7 and given newspaper’s submission deadlines, it is no longer possible to meet that deadline,” the department said in a statement.
The state House’s Democratic majority blamed state Senate Republicans for the holdup, saying that the caucus was “failing to honor our shared pledge to prioritize justice for survivors of childhood sexual abuse before the November election — a cruel dereliction of duty.”
Lawmakers in the lower chamber have passed five different measures since January that would create a two-year period to file civil suits. One path would send a proposed constitutional amendment to voters for consideration.
Another would allow retroactive lawsuits for two years through traditional legislation, an option that would allow the measure to go into effect immediately after being signed by Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro.
At this point, Shapiro prefers the latter option, according to spokesperson Manuel Bonder.
“There is no reason to go through the process of a constitutional amendment,” Bonder said in a statement. “The Senate should send this bill — which has already passed the House — to the Governor’s desk to provide a direct path to justice for survivors.”
But leadership in the Republican-controlled state Senate has said they will pass the window only as a constitutional amendment, arguing that the statutory path would be unconstitutional.
Additionally, GOP leadership has said they’d pass the amendment only if it’s combined with two of their priorities — an expanded ID requirement for state voters and an easier path for the legislature to shoot down executive regulations.
Kate Flessner, a spokesperson for state Senate Republicans, said it is “tremendously unfortunate the House will not allow all of these questions to be presented to voters.”
“Our Caucus remains open to conversations about how to accomplish all three of the important constitutional amendments initially included in [Senate Bill 1],” she added.
Currently, survivors of childhood sexual abuse can file civil suits until age 30. That cutoff prohibits recovery of damages for decades-old acts like those described in a blistering 2018 state grand jury report on clergy abuse in Pennsylvania Catholic dioceses.
Following the report’s release, the Pennsylvania House, then under Republican control, passed a bill to immediately create a statutory civil window.
But leadership in the state Senate, including then-President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson), balked and said such a bill would violate the Pennsylvania Constitution — a stance also taken by lobbyists for the Catholic Church and insurers.
The next year, Gregory and state Rep. Mark Rozzi (D., Berks) — another survivor of abuse who has pushed for a civil window since being elected in 2012 — teamed up to propose the change as a constitutional amendment.
The strategic pivot worked. Their proposal sailed through the General Assembly with minimal opposition and was scheduled to reach voters in 2021.
That plan was derailed when former Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration announced it had failed to advertise the proposed amendment in newspapers across the state as required. Legislators thus had to start the process over from scratch.
The General Assembly approved the proposal again — with slightly different wording that eliminated immunity for government agencies like schools — in 2021, setting it up for final passage and a referendum this year.
But survivors faced yet another twist in their journey when the Pennsylvania House flipped to Democratic control after the November 2022 election.
Instead of passing the window amendment as a standalone measure, the state Senate attached proposals to require voters to show ID every time they vote, including by mail, and make it easier for the legislature to override regulations.
Similar constitutional amendments had passed the state House when it was under Republican control. But Democrats newly at the helm said they would not consider a bundled proposal and accused the GOP of using abuse survivors as pawns to pass partisan priorities.
Since 2018, support among legislative Republicans for the civil window — either through traditional legislation or a constitutional amendment — has dipped, votes on legislation show.
Gregory said increasing skepticism from his colleagues will make it more difficult to sell the proposal to voters if it reaches the ballot.
“That’s not been fair to victims. They were forced to wait by a mistake, and the politicization of this issue by both sides has put much more difficulty on getting this passed,” Gregory said. “The longer this goes, the tougher it becomes and the more expensive a venture it becomes.”
As of July 2023, 26 states had passed some form of a revival window for old claims of sexual abuse, according to Child USA, a group that advocates for ending child abuse.
A referendum could reach the ballot in next year’s presidential primary or general election if the chambers reach an agreement to pass identical language.
However, if they fail to do so before the current session ends in 2024, the earliest a new constitutional question on the topic could be put to voters would be in 2027.
WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.