Stop the bickering: Pennsylvania lawmakers must help victims of clergy sex abuse

Morning Call [Allentown PA]

March 19, 2021

By Paul Muschick

State lawmakers are running out of time to reconfirm their commitment to holding child molesters accountable.

They can do it if they pull together, stop bickering and think of the victims instead of themselves.

Lawmakers are scrambling to resurrect a proposed amendment to the state Constitution that would open a two-year window for victims of childhood sexual abuse to retroactively sue their attackers, along with organizations that covered up the abuse, such as the Catholic church.

The effort was driven by a scathing 2018 grand jury report. It disclosed accusations of more than 1,000 Pennsylvania children being sexually abused by hundreds of priests over seven decades.

Lawmakers previously approved a referendum to ask voters whether they wanted to amend the Constitution to allow lawsuits. The referendum was supposed to be on the May primary ballot.

But it was botched by the Department of State, part of the administration of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

The department failed to advertise the proposed amendment in newspapers across the state last year, a requirement so the public would be aware of what they would be voting on.

The department’s top official, Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathy Boockvar, resigned over the blunder. The state Inspector General is investigating.

After Boockvar’s office dropped the ball — Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair, questions whether that was intentional, to protect institutions from lawsuits — it appeared that meant the lengthy legislative process to hold a referendum would have to start over again. It takes two years.

But lawmakers in the Republican-controlled House and Senate are trying to salvage the plan by approving the constitutional amendment on an emergency basis, in time for the primary.

That doesn’t require votes in two legislative sessions. Only one vote is needed, though it has to be by a two-thirds majority. But it has to be done soon to get it on the May ballot.

The problem is, legislators can’t agree on a plan. There are multiple bills pending, and they are squabbling over some of the language in them.

The one with the clearest path is House Bill 14, written by Gregory. It passed the House in January.

It did not initially call for an emergency amendment, and instead called for the standard two-year referendum process to begin again. The bill was amended in the Senate this week to hold the referendum as an emergency.

The amendment also added language critical of Boockvar for her department fouling up the previous process.

“The secretary’s failure frustrates the constitutional amendment process; denies the people of Pennsylvania their opportunity to have their voices heard in amending their Constitution; and, threatens the very nature of the commonwealth’s Republican form of government,” says the amendment by Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, that was passed Tuesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The amendment says that voters being deprived of the referendum “by an unelected bureaucrat constitutes a major emergency.”

That language also is in the other bill that seeks to hold a constitutional amendment referendum on an emergency basis, House Bill 881, also by Gregory.

Sparks flew over the terminology on Wednesday, as reported by The Morning Call’s Ford Turner.

Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, argued that such critical language could threaten the bipartisan support that would be needed to pass the plan. Rozzi has led the legislative fight for victims’ rights. He is suing the Allentown Diocese and Holy Guardian Angels Parish in Reading, saying he was sexually abused by a priest in the 1980s, when he was 13-years-old.

His proposal to strip out the language was voted down Wednesday by the House, 109-92. Rozzi said that shows there is a legislative desire “to use this as a political tool.” That drew a rebuke from House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre.

It would be preferable if the language diplomatically explained why an emergency measure was necessary. But while the wording is harsh, it is accurate. The Department of State made a big mistake.

Some Democratic lawmakers may feel the wording is a political arrow. But if they want to look out for child sex abuse victims, they should accept it if that’s what it takes to pass the bill.

That’s not the only point of debate, though.

Some lawmakers question whether this situation meets the criteria to amend the state Constitution through the emergency process.

The Constitution allows the process to be used “in the event a major emergency threatens or is about to threaten the commonwealth and if the safety or welfare of the commonwealth requires prompt amendment.”

Sen. John Gordner, R-Columbia, said during this week’s committee hearing that the process has been used only three times in the past 50 years, all to deal with the aftermath of flooding after Hurricane Agnes in the 1970s. He doesn’t believe a delay of a referendum about retroactive lawsuits by sex abuse victims meets the criteria.

Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming, felt otherwise.

“I don’t think anybody ever envisioned that we would have a situation like this, involving crimes of this nature, involving an administrative foul-up in the advertising,” he said.

Here’s how I see it.

The Department of State’s error wrecked the Legislature’s plan to try to protect sexual abuse victims. It threatens their ability to get justice that already has been delayed for too long. Many are elderly now. Their welfare is at stake.

So while it may be a stretch, I hope the plan passes and voters get to address this problem once and for all in May.

Morning Call columnist Paul Muschick can be reached at 610-820-6582 or