General Assembly could consider plan to help adult survivors of child sex abuse next week

The Daily Item [Sunbury PA]

March 12, 2021

By John Finnerty

The Senate judiciary committee is scheduled to vote Monday on whether to ask voters to approve an emergency change to the state constitution to open a window for lawsuits by adult survivors of childhood sex abuse.

“At this late point in a debate that has been ongoing for over two decades, the emergency constitutional amendment is the most timely and viable option for affording thousands of abuse victims their long-sought access to justice,” state Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne County said. “By getting the question on the ballot, we give voters the chance to end the delay and say ‘yes’ to the type of justice that all Pennsylvanians deserve.”

Senate Democrats earlier on Friday called for the passage of a bill that would immediately open a window for adult survivors of child abuse to sue their abusers and organizations, such as the Catholic Church, which covered up for predators.

State Sen. Steve Santarsiero, the Democratic chair of the Senate judiciary committee, said the move to open a window legislative would provide an immediate solution, even as Republicans in the General Assembly say they are poised to move to open the window for lawsuits by amending the state Constitution.

The General Assembly had been moving to get a ballot question in place for the May primary when the Wolf administration announced in January that the Department of State had bungled the public notice requirements so the measure wouldn’t be on the ballot. Then-Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar resigned after the misstep was disclosed.

The move to amend the constitution came after years of lobbying by survivors of priest abuse. The effort picked up steam in 2018 after a statewide grand jury revealed that church officials in six Catholic dioceses had covered up abuse by 300 priests.

Lawmakers in the state House first suggested that the situation could be solved by passing an emergency constitutional amendment, which would fast-track the ballot question and get it in place by May. In normal circumstances, proposed changes to the constitution have to be voted on by the General Assembly in two consecutive legislative sessions before they are placed on the ballot.

The Senate and House are both in session next week.

The Legislature must pass the resolution calling for an emergency constitutional amendment before March 24 in order for the question to be on the ballot on May 18, according to a letter from Gov. Tom Wolf to lawmakers provided by the Department of State. While Wolf has repeatedly said he thinks the General Assembly could open the window for lawsuits through a normal piece of legislation, in the letter, the governor indicates he doesn’t oppose the idea of using a constitutional amendment.

“A proposed emergency constitutional amendment has my complete support,” Wolf said in the letter.

Santarsiero said Attorney General Josh Shapiro has indicated that the state could open a window for lawsuits through a normal piece of legislation. State Sen. Katie Muth added that in other states, similar look-back windows for lawsuits have been used and haven’t been challenged in the courts.

But Santarsiero said that if the only solution that Republicans will support is an emergency change to the constitution, Democrats would vote for it.

“If that’s the best route,” he said. “We will support it.”

In early February, state Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks County, who has publicly disclosed that he is a survivor of abuse by a priest, announced that the chamber would hold a vote on making the emergency change to the constitution in response to the Department of State’s bungling.

At the time, House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre County, said that he’d agree to hold a vote on the emergency change to the Constitution.

Asked about this week, Benninghoff said that House leaders are waiting to see if the Senate acts on it, first. However, a scheduled released by Benninghoff’s office Friday afternoon indicates that the House does plan to vote on the emergency constitutional amendment next week.

“I’m giving deference to Senator Ward,” he said. “In the interim, my staff has been dialoguing with some of her staff and other Senate members and we have frequent dialogue with the two representatives (Rozzi and Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair County) who have a very specific, keen interest in this issue. We’ve been thrown a curveball and our goal is to manage that.”