The Pa. House is back Tuesday to kick off ‘a week for the victims’

Philadelphia Inquirer [Philadelphia PA]

February 20, 2023

By Gillian McGoldrick

State Senate GOP leaders say they already passed childhood sexual abuse measures as part of a package of amendments. Speaker Mark Rozzi told The Inquirer the Senate should “Stop bulls—ing people.”

The Pennsylvania House will return Tuesday for the first time in more than a month to vote on two measures to help childhood sexual abuse survivors seek justice from their abusers and the institutions that protected them.

In what House Speaker Mark Rozzi (D., Berks) called “a week for the victims,” he called the House back into a special session where they’ll be tasked with voting on only two bills: one that would propose an amendment to the state constitution and another that would change state law; both would create a two-year window for adult victims of childhood sexual assault to file civil lawsuits against their abusers or the institutions that protected them.

Childhood sexual abuse survivors have lobbied the Pennsylvania General Assembly for years to reopen the statute of limitations for a limited window, as victims still work through the impact of their abuse as adults. Every time, however, victims were disappointed— most recently by a publication error by the Department of State that put the measure back to square one.

Rozzi, himself a survivor of childhood sexual abuse by a Roman Catholic priest, called the session in what could be one of his last acts in his surprise speakership — hoping to finally push through the long-sought amendment to the November ballot.

“The only thing delays and political gamesmanship do is protect the abusers that prey on children,” said Shaun Dougherty, the president of national advocacy group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “It does nothing to protect the children of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

The future for these measures looks increasingly bleak, however,as Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R., Indiana) said in a statement that the Senate already “fulfilled and completed our commitment to address this issue” and that a special session “remains unnecessary.”

Last month, the Senate added the childhood sexual abuse amendment to an omnibus package of three constitutionalamendments, including one to require voter ID and another to increase the General Assembly’s say in the regulatory process. If the House passes a standalone amendment proposal,the Senate would need to reenter special session and pass the same bills for the sexual abuse measure to appear on the November ballot.

Rozzi told The Inquirer the Senate should “Stop bulls— people.”

“They didn’t do their job,” he said in an interview. “The truth is, they passed the statute of limitations [plan] with something that was tied to their political ideology.”

”Get the hell back in [special session] and pass this bill for victims,” Rozzi added. “That is doing your job: finally getting it done. Pass it for the final time, let it get on the ballot in November. That is your job.”

Rozzi has been frequently criticized by House Republican leaders during the last month for keeping the House chamber closed until his top priority — the childhood sexual abuse amendment — gets done.

If the proposed amendment passes both the House and Senate, Pennsylvania voters would decide whether to approve them in November’s election.If the statutory change passes, victims could begin filing civil suits much sooner.

James Faluszczak, a survivor of clergy sexual abuse, said he’s still holding his breath. He likened his experience waiting for justice to his long history hoping that the Buffalo Bills win the Super Bowl.

“It’s the same, except for the fact people are dying because of this,” said Faluszczak, an Erie native who now lives in Buffalo.

New York and New Jersey have both passed legislation to provide childhood sexual abuse victims the ability as adults to seek justice in their cases.

“There are a lot of big states where nobody thought this would ever be possible,” Faluszczak said. “So many of my friends look at me and say, ‘What is going on in Pennsylvania?’ ”

No simple majority needed

The House has been out of session since Jan. 9, when legislative leaders could not reach an agreement on how a razor-thin majority should operate. This time, Democrats will be in control of the House with a 102-101 split, after winning recent special elections, giving them a hair of breathing room.

For the special session, the House will operate under a special set of rules, authored by a bipartisan panel chosen by Rozzi with three Democrats and three Republicans.

The most controversial part of the package: requiring a two-thirds vote to amend the bills, in order to block anyone from tacking on additional amendments to the sexual abuse bills. It usually only takes a simple majority to amend a bill.

Rozzi said he expects Republicans to try to block the rules’ approval and potentially try to remove him as speaker. He even thinks some of the Republicans who helped author the rule will vote against it, following GOP leadership. A single committee will vote on the bills and move it through the legislative process. Rozzi scheduled thespecial session through the end of the week.

Rozzi said he’s spoken with Gov. Josh Shapiro on several occasions in recent weeks and was reassured that Shapiro “will do everything to get this across the finish line.” Shapiro could call the Senate back into special session to vote on the bills, but the Senate could do what they did before: gavel inand immediately gavel out.

Shapiro’s office declined to comment on whether he would call the Senate back.

Rozzi told The Inquirer earlier this month that he will reassess whether he wants to stay as House speaker once these childhood sexual abuse measures pass the House. As a child, he survived sexual abuse by a now-deceased Roman Catholic priest in the Diocese of Allentown. He came to Harrisburg in 2013 to achieve justice reforms for fellow victims.

For Dougherty, he’s learned to “expect the unexpected” from politicians in Harrisburg.

“Thank goodness Rozzi is there, or I don’t know that [survivors would] have any hope,” Dougherty added.

Gillian McGoldrick
I write about Pennsylvania’s state government and how it impacts the lives of its residents.