The Herald [Sharon PA]
March 24, 2021
By John Finnerty
[Photo above: Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during an Aug. 14, 2018, press conference to announce the results of a grand jury investigation that revealed abuse of thousands of children by Catholic Church priests and lay people. Associated Press]
Abuse window vote could come in 2023
The state House on Wednesday voted overwhelmingly in favor of legislation that would allow voters to decide whether to open a window for lawsuits by adult survivors of childhood sex abuse.
The measure wouldn’t, however, place the question on the ballot before 2023.
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.
The question had been on track to be on the ballot in May but the Department of State bungled the public notice requirement, a foul-up that the Wolf Administration determined meant that the question couldn’t legally be included on the ballot in the spring primary.
State Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks County, has publicly disclosed he’s a survivor of abuse by a priest and he has championed the push to open a window for lawsuits by survivors of childhood abuse. Wednesday, he urged lawmakers to vote in favor of the change, despite the two-year process it initiates.
“This is a first step,” he said, adding that advocates hope that while the proposed Constitutional amendment process goes on, they can successfully convince lawmakers to immediately open a window for lawsuits by survivors through a normal piece of legislation.
Gov. Tom Wolf and Attorney General Josh Shapiro have both said they think the state could open the window for lawsuits through a conventional piece of legislation. However, Senate Republicans have refused to support the move to open the window, other than through a constitutional amendment, saying a retroactive change would be illegal otherwise.
A move to try to use an emergency provision to get the question on the ballot in May fizzled Monday when Senate Republicans announced they didn’t think the state’s mishandling of the public notice requirement was comparable to the only other times the emergency provision had been used — in the 1970s when the state was trying to respond during the aftermath of the flooding caused by Hurricane Agnes.
Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland County, said Monday “the strongest legal position to bring closure to this matter” would be to make the change through the normal two-year process of changing the Constitution.
The measure was approved by the House by a vote of 188-13 Wednesday afternoon.
It passed the state Senate by a vote of 44-3 Tuesday.
But to amend the Constitution, identical legislation must pass again in the next legislative session, which begins January 2023, before voters can decide whether to approve the change.
In Senate debate on the issue, Republicans had argued the requirement for passing the proposed change in separate legislative sessions was intended to ensure that voters had the opportunity to vote out incumbents after the initial vote on the proposed question and before the second vote on the issue.
Democrats had argued because the issue has already been debated at length, and the General Assembly had voted on the question in the last legislative session, it would be appropriate to move ahead to allow voters to decide the matter in May.