Botched handling of ballot question is a 'kick in the teeth' to survivors of abuse

By John Finnerty
Crossville Chronicle
February 01, 2021

Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar is resigning after administration officials acknowledged Monday that the department had failed to advertise a proposed change to the state Constitution to allow adult survivors of childhood sex abuse to sue the Catholic Church and other organizations that covered up for predators.

Because of the error, the proposed amendment can’t be on the ballot until 2023 due to a requirement that the measure be approved in two consecutive legislative sessions. Failing to properly advertise the proposed change when it first passed the General Assembly in 2019 means that the process must start over at the beginning, the Department of State said in a statement.

Boockvar’s resignation is effective Friday.

Gov. Tom Wolf apologized for the Department of State’s bungling and confirmed that Boockvar’s departure was based on the botched handling of the statute of limitations amendment.

“It’s a kick in the teeth,” said Shaun Dougherty, a survivor of priest abuse who’s been one of the leaders of efforts by survivors to get a window opened to allow for lawsuits.

The revelation that the proposed change to the Constitution must now wait until 2023 will revive efforts to get the General Assembly to open a window for lawsuits through a normal piece of legislation, Dougherty said.

Officials in the Department of State discovered the flub when they began preparing for the General Assembly to pass the legislation proposing the change for a second time. The state House had already approved the proposal twice, and a Senate action on the proposal was underway.

State Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair County, who’d authored the legislation that would have called for the statewide ballot question on changing the Constitution to allow adult survivors of abuse to sue, said he was “inconsolable” when learned that the flub had derailed the effort.

The state House had already approved the proposed ballot question last week and the state Senate was poised to follow suit this week.

Gregory said he learned of the problem when Wolf called him to apologize for the situation. “I couldn’t speak,” Gregory said. “We could be this close and to have a clerical error force us to have to tell victims they will have to wait again,” he said.

The move to amend the Constitution came after years of lobbying by survivors of priest abuse. The effort picked up steam in 2018 after a statewide grand jury revealed that church officials in six Catholic dioceses had covered up abuse by 300 priests.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro said the Department of State’s error is “shameful” and called for “all options” to be explored to correct the problem.

 Shapiro has said that the change could legally be made through a normal piece of legislation, but Republican lawmakers have resisted doing that, arguing it would be unconstitutional to retroactively change the statute of limitations without first changing the state Constitution.

“The delay caused by this human error will be heartbreaking for thousands of survivors of childhood sexual assault, advocates and legislators, and I join the Department of State in apologizing to you. I share your anger and frustration that this happened, and I stand with you in your fight for justice," Wolf said.

Boockvar said that she was taking responsibility for the mistake.

“I’ve always believed that accountability and leadership must be a cornerstone of public service. While I only became aware of the mistake last week, and immediately took steps to alert the administration to the error, I accept responsibility on behalf of the department," Boockvar said in a statement provided by the governor's office.

A group of Democrats in the state Senate announced Monday that they plan to introduce legislation to open the window for lawsuits without amending the Constitution first.

“Legislative action is long overdue and with this latest delay waiting another two years is simply unacceptable,” said Sen. Katie Muth, D-Montgomery County. “The General Assembly needs to pass a statutory window as soon as possible and finally allow justice and healing for these victims.”

Republicans in the Senate who’d opposed the move to change the law without first altering the Constitution gave no indication that they plan to budge on the issue due to the Department of State’s mishandling of the ballot question.

State Sen. John Gordner, R-Columbia, said that if the General Assembly tried to open a window for lawsuits without changing the Constitution first, there would be legal challenges that would likely take years to resolve anyway. As a result, it’s not clear that the law would change any faster than if the General Assembly went through the process to change the Constitution.

Dougherty said he thinks lawmakers could do both, pass the legislation to immediately open the window and begin the process to amend the Constitution.

State Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks County, said that waiting until 2023 to change the Constitution won’t be a satisfactory resolution. Rozzi emerged as the leading proponent of opening a window for lawsuits in 2016 after he publicly disclosed that he’d been molested by a priest.

“We are pursuing other legal alternatives and do not plan to stop until the matter is resolved,” Rozzi said. “Waiting another term for victims to seek justice is unacceptable,” he said.

Boockvar had been at the center of the state’s efforts to administer the 2020 election and oversaw the controversial vote-counting process that followed it.

 “This change at the Department of State has nothing to do with the administration of the 2020 election, which was fair and accurate,” said Wolf.

Senate President Pro Tem Jake Corman, R-Centre County, had called for Boockvar's resignation over her leadership of the state's election.

“I have been saying for a long time that Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar’s ineptness has been detrimental to Pennsylvania. This is just one in a series of disasters throughout her tenure. This time, Secretary Boockvar has failed the survivors of child sex abuse and disregarded the will of the people," Corman said.


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