February 1, 2021
By Julian Routh and Peter Smith
Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar will soon resign after her department failed to advertise an amendment to the state’s constitution extending the statute of limitations for child sex abuse victims to file actions in civil court against their abusers, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Monday.
Her resignation will take effect on Friday, Mr. Wolf said.
The omission is a stunning setback in an effort by victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and others to gain a window of time in which they could sue over abuse that happened years or decades ago, beyond what the current statute of limitations allows.
The effort, building on grand jury reports in 2016 and 2018 on the long histories of abuse in Catholic dioceses around the state, would have enabled victims to sue dioceses or others deemed complicit in the abuse.
“We trusted the process, and it failed us again,” said James Faluszczak, a former priest of the Diocese of Erie and himself a survivor of clergy sexual abuse, who was a witness before a grand jury that issued a report on six dioceses in 2018.”
The department was constitutionally required to advertise the proposed constitutional amendment — which voters would have eventually decided at the ballot box — in each of the three months before the 2020 general election, but never did, Mr. Wolf’s office said in a statement.
If the resolution would have been advertised by the state and greenlighted by voters, it would have amended Article I of the state’s constitution to say, “An individual for whom a statutory limitations period has already expired shall have a period of two years from the time that this subsection becomes effective to commence an action arising from childhood sexual abuse, in such cases as provided by law at the time that this subsection becomes effective.”
“The delay caused by this human error will be heartbreaking for thousands of survivors of childhood sexual assault, advocates and legislators, and I join the Department of State in apologizing to you,” Mr. Wolf said. “I share your anger and frustration that this happened, and I stand with you in your fight for justice.”
Veronica Degraffenreid, a special adviser to the department on election modernization, will serve as acting secretary of the commonwealth, Mr. Wolf’s office said. In response to the failure, the state department will institute “additional tracking and notifications of constitutional amendments,” according to the statement, and the Pennsylvania Office of State Inspector General will review what happened.
The amendment was in its final stages before going to voters. The state House had given its final approval last month, giving it approval in the second consecutive legislation session, as required. If the state Senate were to follow, the proposal could have been on the election ballot for approval by voters in the May 18 primary.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro called the state department’s failure “shameful,” and said “all options must be on the table to fix this immediately.”
“Too many institutions have failed survivors of sexual abuse for far too long, and I am determined for that disgraceful streak to end and to make sure justice is no longer denied,” Mr. Shapiro said in a statement.
The governor said he’d commit to working with the state legislature to reach a solution legislatively — if they wanted to create a window in civil court for victims of child sex abuse to file claims.
Mr. Shapiro echoed that sentiment, and said he made clear from the beginning that the constitutional amendment process was an “unnecessary hurdle.” He urged the Legislature to pass the reform into law.
Democrats in the state Senate said that instead of starting over the constitutional amendment process again — which would require passing a bill in its identical form in two consecutive sessions — the legislature should statutorily create the window for claims. They plan to introduce the bill themselves that would “establish a 2-year civil window for survivors of childhood sexual assault with expired claims to bring suit against their abusers,” according to a legislative memo uploaded to the chamber’s website on Monday.
“If we continue with the constitutional amendment process, it will be at least another 2 years until the window would be created and that’s simply too long,” said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, calling the state department’s failure a “disappointing setback in the process to create the window to justice.”
“A legislative solution can create the window immediately,” he said, “and I’m encouraging bipartisan and bicameral support for the bill that members of our caucus is going to introduce. Survivors need justice now.”
According to the Democrats’ memo, the legislature debated last session whether a constitutional amendment was necessary for the issue at hand, and opted not to adopt an amendment that would have established the civil window statutorily.
“Since then, subsequent court cases have demonstrated the legality of providing a retroactive window statutorily, rather than through a constitutional amendment,” the memo read. “The civil window is supported by Pennsylvania’s Attorney General and has been upheld in seven other states.”
The 2018 grand jury report accused 300 priests of sexual abuse across seven decades in six dioceses, including Pittsburgh and Greensburg. It followed a similar report in 2016 on a seventh diocese, Altoona-Johnstown.
Legislative efforts to pass a window in the statute of limitations failed in 2018, in part due to objections that such a look back would violate the state constitution, although other states have allowed them. That led to a new strategy in 2019 to initiate a constitutional amendment, even though some doubted its need.
“The goal of survivors has always been to have a window,” Mr. Faluszczak said on Twitter. “Most of us said we’d give the … amendment process a chance, even though it was constitutionally unnecessary.”
The Diocese of Pittsburgh and most other Pennsylvania dioceses launched compensation funds after the 2018 grand jury report, seeking to reach out-of-court settlements with victims that would, among other things, reduce their exposure to lawsuits if a window were authorized.
Many victims, meanwhile, have already sued over long-ago abuse under a legal theory that alleges long-running conspiracy and fraud by dioceses. The state Supreme Court is weighing those arguments in a precedent-setting case.
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