Wolf, legislative leaders agree to prioritize constitutional amendment for child sex abuse victims

Patriot-News - PennLive [Mechanicsburg PA]

August 31, 2022

By Ivey DeJesus

Gov. Tom Wolf and legislative leaders have agreed to prioritize a constitutional amendment early next legislative session that, if approved by voters, would open a two-year window for survivors of childhood sexual abuse to file civil lawsuits.

“I want to first reiterate my deep regret and sincerest apologies to victims for the process error that prevented this issue from being decided upon by the voters this legislative session,” Wolf said in a press statement.

“I have fought for an immediate legislative solution to this issue and have been working with legislators to determine the clearest path forward.”

Wolf earlier this year had threatened to turn up the heat on state lawmakers this summer to pass move legislation forward.

Wolf said he and legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle have committed to prioritizing the second passage of the constitutional amendment early next session.

“I am grateful for this agreement so that survivors can seek a path forward toward justice,” he said.

The General Assembly in 2021 approved a proposed amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution to provide for a two-year window for survivors of childhood sexual abuse to file previously time-barred claims.

The measure would allow voters to say whether the state constitution should be amended to give victims timed out of the legal system a two-year retroactive period during which they could pursue civil suits. Advocates and lawmakers have for years pushed for the measure in the wake of a 2018 grand jury report outlining scores of sexual assaults against children in Catholic dioceses across Pennsylvania.

Constitutional amendments must be approved during two consecutive legislative sessions before being put on the ballot, so the constitutional amendment could be on the ballot for the voters to decide in 2023.

Legislative leaders who consulted with Wolf on the constitutional amendment include: Senate Republican Leader Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland), House Republican Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R-Centre, Mifflin), Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) and House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton (D-Philadelphia). Representatives Mark Rozzi (D-Berks), who authored legislation seeking this two-year window through statute, and Jim Gregory (R-Blair), who authored the constitutional amendment, also were part of the consultation process.

“Without question, all victims of childhood sexual abuse should have the ability to face their abusers. As I have consistently stated, the constitutional amendment is the strongest legal position to bring closure to this matter for all victims (public and private),” Ward said. “Remaining true to our commitment, we plan to take the next step in the constitutional amendment process in the next legislative session, just as we have in previous legislative sessions, and consistent with the multiple legislative actions already taken to protect children and families from such heinous acts.”

In 2019, Wolf signed legislation overhauling the state’s child sex crime laws. Under the law, Pennsylvania abolished the statute of limitations on childhood sex abuse in criminal cases and extended the amount of time victims have to file civil actions against their abusers to age 55.

But the law didn’t address the civil statute of limitations to give victims a retroactive legal window to file lawsuits against their abuser after the statute of limitations expired.

Benninghoff noted that the Pennsylvania House has taken up and passed the proposed constitutional amendment in three different legislative sessions.

“Next session we will once again remind our caucus of the unique circumstances that lead to the fourth consideration of this constitutional amendment and the need to continue to lead on an issue so important to many victims and families across Pennsylvania,” he said.

Costa said the Senate Democratic caucus was ready to ensure the constitutional amendment process was completed.

“This commitment is a positive step and I am committed to making it a priority early next year,” he said.

McClinton said victims deserved justice.

“Our caucus has stood alongside Representative Rozzi as he has tirelessly advocated for this measure, and we’ll continue to stand with the victims of abuse until they get the opportunity they deserve,” she said. “This will be a priority for us when the legislature convenes for a new session in January.”

Gregory’s constitutional amendment referendum was poised to appear on the May 18, 2021 primary ballot but was disqualified after officials at the Department of State failed to advertise the amendment during the 2019-20 legislative session.

“As we approach the two-year mark of victims having to wait again to pass this constitutional amendment, I am pleased that this legislation has not been forgotten by my colleagues in leadership,” Gregory said. “For me, the victims waiting two more years haven’t been forgotten for one day. The commitment to get it on the ballot next spring is a must.”

Rozzi, a survivor of child sexual abuse, supports a legislative path to opening the two-year window on the statute of limitations, allowing survivors a temporary legal recourse. Rozzi’s bill passed in the House and advanced out of the Senate Judiciary Committee in April, but it has stalled ahead of a full Senate vote.

“Victims and survivors alike deserve their day in court and they certainly deserve to know the truth, whether it is about their perpetrator or the institution that aided and abetted these heinous crimes,” Rep. Rozzi said. “There must be accountability for the reprehensible murder of each child’s soul.”