‘Internal systemic failures’ led to Wolf administration blunder that derailed child sex abuse amendment

Spotlight PA [Harrisburg PA]

May 26, 2021

By Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA

HARRISBURG — “Internal systemic failures” were behind the Wolf administration’s bungling of a statewide referendum that would provide legal recourse to survivors of child sexual abuse, according to a much-anticipated report released Wednesday.

The Office of State Inspector General found no evidence that the administration’s failure to advertise the proposed constitutional amendment as required was deliberate or the result of outside pressure or “intentional malfeasance.”

But it did find the Department of State, which oversees elections, had no formal or written process in place for ensuring referendums appear on the ballot. There was also little, if any, executive oversight or staff training — a chronic complaint from employees interviewed for the inquiry — and paltry communication between the various bureaus within the department that are responsible for getting questions on the ballot.

The Department of State, according to the report, “lacked executive oversight, written policies and procedures, proper staff training, and consistent communication of the process.”

The agency’s error meant the referendum could not appear on the May ballot, as had been planned, devastating the state’s community of survivors who have pushed for it for nearly two decades.

Shortly after learning of the mistake earlier this year, the department’s secretary, Kathy Boockvar, publicly acknowledged the error and announced she would resign. On Wednesday, state officials said the department’s head of legislative affairs, whose job includes tracking legislation, had also resigned — although they would not say whether it was related to the mistake.

Veronica Degraffenreid, the department’s acting secretary, apologized Wednesday for the error, saying: “It was so horrifying to me and everyone at the Department of State that a grave error — at the department — added to the pain of any victim of abuse.”

Degraffenreid said her agency has already instituted a number of changes to ensure such a mistake never happens again, among them, implementing what she called a “top-down” process that puts high-level staff in charge of monitoring every aspect of getting a question on the ballot.

The inspector general’s investigation was ordered by Gov. Tom Wolf and involved interviews with nearly two dozen current and former employees and a review of electronic communications and other internal department documents. But even the report’s release Wednesday did not seem to satisfy Republican lawmakers.

“At this point, it seems to have raised more questions than answers,” Sens. Lisa Baker (R., Luzerne) and Dave Argall (R., Schuylkill) said in a joint statement. The two committee chairs are scheduled to hold a joint hearing on how the error occurred next month.

Rep. Jim Gregory (R., Blair), a survivor of child sexual abuse, said one of his biggest disappointments is that even though the report revealed major administrative failures, “resignations were accepted — but nobody was fired.”

“That’s unconscionable to me, unconscionable to victims,” he said.

The proposed ballot question centers on whether to allow a two-year reprieve in state law so older survivors of child sexual abuse can sue the perpetrators and the institutions that covered up for them. Those survivors are currently too old under the statute of limitations to bring such legal claims.

A number of victims of Catholic priests say it took them years to break their silence on the abuse they endured. Without a reprieve, they say they are left with no legal recourse, even in the face of multiple grand jury investigations in Pennsylvania that revealed every Catholic diocese in the state covered up decades of clergy sexual abuse.

Lobbyists for the Catholic Church and the insurance industry vehemently oppose the proposed two-year window.

The GOP-controlled legislature had wavered over the years on the best way to offer relief to survivors. In the end, leadership decided legal recourse could only be offered by amending the Pennsylvania Constitution, a lengthy process.

Under state law, any proposed changes to the constitution must be approved by the legislature in two consecutive sessions, each of which spans two years. The proposed change is then placed on the ballot for voters to make the ultimate decision.

After each passage, the Department of State is required to advertise the proposal in all 67 Pennsylvania counties.

The legislature approved the proposed two-year reprieve in its 2019-2020 session and was on track to pass it again in the current session in time for it to appear on the May ballot.

But because of the Department of State’s failure to advertise the question, the process needed to start again. Both chambers have once again given first approval to the proposed amendment, but the earliest a question can appear on the ballot is 2023.

Lawmakers want to figure out a way to speed up the timeline, but that effort has become mired in political disagreement. The House of Representatives now favors passing a traditional bill to establish the two-year reprieve, rather than using the constitutional amendment process.

But many Republicans in the state Senate, led by newly elected Majority Leader Kim Ward of Westmoreland County, contend that the only legal way to make the change is to amend the constitution. In taking that position, she has placed herself at odds with the Senate’s top Republican, Jake Corman of Centre County.

Ward, who controls the flow of legislation on the floor, has been silent on whether she will allow a vote on a bill establishing a two-year window. Weeks have gone by since a key Senate committee approved legislation to do just that.

Survivors groups have taken notice. In a statement this week, they accused Ward of obstructing the bill’s passage.

“It’s indefensible that Sen. Ward continues to protect predators and the institutions that have shielded them over our children and the thousands of survivors of child sexual abuse who have been promised a lookback window legislation for years,” said Michael and Deborah McIlmail, parents of Sean McIlmail, a clergy abuse survivor who died several years ago. “This bill won’t bring our son back but it will help chart a path forward and expose hidden predators and protect our children today who remain at risk of abuse.”

Spotlight PA is an independent, non-partisan 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.