Wolf vows special session if lawmaker’s child sexual abuse legislation isn’t passed

Delaware County Daily Times [Exton PA]

April 5, 2022

By Mrak Nemirow

Governor demands lawmakers give issue a high priority this spring

Gov. Tom Wolf announced Monday that he will schedule a special legislative session this summer if they fail this spring to pass a bill that gives victims of child sexual abuse the opportunity to sue their abusers in court.

As lawmakers prepare to deliberate over the state budget package due in June, Wolf is demanding that it include a bill that opens a two-year retroactive window for these victims to file lawsuits outside of the statute of limitations.

Wolf made the demand in the Capitol Rotunda with victims of child sex abuse accompanying him. Among them was Muhlenberg Township Democratic Rep. Mark Rozzi, a victim himself who has been pushing for the legislation for years.

“It’s been a full year since this bill passed in the House of Representatives, and the Senate needs to act now,” Rozzi said. “Many senators are on record as supporters and the sole obstacle that remains is the majority party leadership’s refusal to allow a vote on the legislation.”

In 2019, Wolf signed legislation overhauling the state’s child sex crime laws. It abolished the statute of limitations on childhood sex abuse in criminal cases and gave victims until the age of 55 to file civil actions against their abusers. But the law didn’t give victims a retroactive legal window to file lawsuits against their abuser after the statute of limitations expired.

Wolf said passing House Bill 951, which was written by Rozzi, is an important way to hold all abusers accountable for what they’ve done.

This bill passed the House by a 149-52 vote a year ago but has not been brought before the full Senate, even though that chamber’s judiciary committee approved it by an 11-3 vote.

Both chambers have passed House Bill 14, which would offer the extended lawsuit window but do it by the lengthier process of amending the state constitution. Amendments must be approved by the House and Senate in two consecutive legislative sessions before being put before voters.

Wolf wants standard legislation because it will resolve the issue more quickly. If it’s not included in the budget, he promised to call a special session, though that does not guarantee action will be taken.

Rozzi said victims have been awaiting the opportunity for justice since the 2005 Philadelphia grand jury report on clergy sex abuse was issued. He blamed Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward for bottling up the legislation in the Senate.

Ward has argued that only an amendment can ensure the changes don’t face challenges over the consitutionality.

“If the majority leader believes that the legislation is unconstitutional, then she should make that motion and allow the Senate to vote on it,” Rozzi said at the news conference. “To refuse to allow the Senate to even vote while victims are being denied justice and the compensation necessary to receive potentially life-saving mental health treatment is unconscionable.”

Republicans say the current situation is the result of the Wolf administration’s blunder by the Department of State in failing to advertise the proposed constitutional amendment last year. The error prevented the proposed amendment  from appearing on the primary ballot for voter ratification last spring. The amendment has to start over through the amendment process.

Rozzi’s office issued a statement noting that the need for legislation and a retroactive window for survivors gained widespread support following a 2005 grand jury investigation that detailed systemic abuse of children in the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia. In 2018 Attorney General Josh Shapiro released similar findings in a grand jury investigation of six other Catholic dioceses across the state.

“At the end of the day, you are either for victims, or you are part of the cover-up,” Rozzi said. “It is time for the leaders in the Senate to step up and provide Pennsylvanians with the leadership that they deserve.”