Kathy Boockvar to resign as Pa.'s secretary of state over amendment issue
By Julian Routh And Peter Smith
February 1, 2021
Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar will soon resign after her department failed to advertise an amendment to the state’s constitution extending the statute of limitations for child sex abuse victims to file actions in civil court against their abusers, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Monday.
Her resignation will take effect Friday, Mr. Wolf said.
The omission is a stunning setback in an effort by victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and others to gain a window of time in which they could sue over abuse that happened years or decades ago, beyond what the current statute of limitations allows.
The effort, building on grand jury reports in 2016 and 2018 on the long histories of abuse in Catholic dioceses around the state, would have enabled victims to sue dioceses or others deemed complicit in the abuse.
“We trusted the process, and it failed us again,” said James Faluszczak, a former priest of the Diocese of Erie and himself a survivor of clergy sexual abuse, who was a witness before a grand jury that issued a report on six dioceses in 2018.”
The department was constitutionally required to advertise the proposed constitutional amendment — which voters would have eventually decided at the ballot box — in each of the three months before the 2020 general election, but never did, Mr. Wolf’s office said in a statement.
If the resolution had been advertised by the state and greenlighted by voters, it would have amended Article I of the state’s constitution to say, “An individual for whom a statutory limitations period has already expired shall have a period of two years from the time that this subsection becomes effective to commence an action arising from childhood sexual abuse, in such cases as provided by law at the time that this subsection becomes effective.”
“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,” Mr. Wolf said. “I share your anger and frustration that this happened, and I stand with you in your fight for justice.”
Ms. Boockvar did not release a statement of her own, but in response to a comment directed to her on Twitter, she said, “I’ve always believed that accountability & leadership must be a cornerstone of public service. While I was not aware of the administrative oversight until last week, the error occurred at our agency and I accept responsibility on behalf of the Department.”
Veronica Degraffenreid, a special adviser to the department on election modernization, will serve as acting secretary of the commonwealth, Mr. Wolf’s office said. In response to the failure, the Department of State will institute “additional tracking and notifications of constitutional amendments,” according to the statement, and the Pennsylvania Office of State Inspector General will review what happened.
The amendment was in its final stages before going to voters. The state House had given its final approval last month, giving it approval in the second consecutive legislative session, as required. If the state Senate were to follow, the proposal could have been on the ballot for approval by voters in the May 18 primary.
But Ms. Boockvar’s department failed its constitutional duty after the first session the bill passed — which was to advertise the amendment in two newspapers in each of the state’s counties where that was possible.
“I mean, this is as ordinary as rain,” said Duquesne University constitutional law professor Bruce Ledewitz of the advertisement process, which he said is so automatic that he’s never heard of a failure like this happening.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro called the Department of State’s failure “shameful” and said “all options must be on the table to fix this immediately.”
“Too many institutions have failed survivors of sexual abuse for far too long, and I am determined for that disgraceful streak to end and to make sure justice is no longer denied,” Mr. Shapiro said in a statement.
The governor said he’d commit to working with the state Legislature to reach a solution legislatively — if they wanted to create a window in civil court for victims of child sex abuse to file claims.
Mr. Shapiro echoed that sentiment and said he made clear from the beginning that the constitutional amendment process was an “unnecessary hurdle.” He urged the Legislature to pass the reform into law.
Democrats in the state Senate said that instead of starting over with the constitutional amendment process — which would require passing a bill in its identical form in two consecutive sessions — the Legislature should statutorily create the window for claims. They plan to introduce a bill themselves that would “establish a 2-year civil window for survivors of childhood sexual assault with expired claims to bring suit against their abusers,” according to a legislative memo uploaded to the chamber’s website on Monday.
“If we continue with the constitutional amendment process, it will be at least another 2 years until the window would be created and that’s simply too long,” said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, calling the department’s failure a “disappointing setback in the process to create the window to justice.”
“A legislative solution can create the window immediately,” he said, “and I’m encouraging bipartisan and bicameral support for the bill that members of our caucus [are] going to introduce. Survivors need justice now.”
Senate Majority Leader, Kim Ward, said the “disastrous scenario” of failing to advertise the amendment “demands a full investigation.” Ms. Ward, R-Hempfield, said she will ask members to conduct their own hearings, adding that Ms. Boockvar’s resignation “does not absolve her of the legal responsibilities she possessed.”
Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, said the GOP had maintained from the beginning that amending the state constitution was the only way forward “to ensure justice for these victims.”
Justice was in sight, he said, but “the survivors will now be revictimized by having to wait an additional two years due to the incompetence of Secretary Boockvar.”
“Senate Republican leaders were vilified and dragged through the mud for months when we were trying to create a real solution for victims that would withstand legal scrutiny instead of passing the measure as a bill,” Mr. Corman said in a statement. “Now, as we see Secretary Boockvar fail to do even the simplest and most basic task to help Pennsylvanians who have been victimized, we see exactly how little this administration actually cared. It was never about people; it was always just about politics.”
The 2018 grand jury report accused 300 priests of sexual abuse across seven decades in six dioceses, including Pittsburgh and Greensburg. It followed a similar report in 2016 on a seventh diocese, Altoona-Johnstown.
The Diocese of Pittsburgh and most other Pennsylvania dioceses launched compensation funds after the 2018 grand jury report, seeking to reach out-of-court settlements with victims that would, among other things, reduce their exposure to lawsuits if a window were authorized.
The Pittsburgh Diocese’s spokesperson, Jennifer Antkowiak, said in a statement: “The Catholic Church has always been neutral on the concept of a PA constitutional amendment. Our main concern is that it treats all victims equally under the law, regardless of whether the abuse occurred within a public or private institution. We do not believe that the current amendment under discussion treats all victims and all institutions equitably.”
Many victims, meanwhile, have already sued dioceses over long-ago abuse under a legal theory that alleges long-running conspiracy and fraud by dioceses. The state Supreme Court is weighing those arguments in a precedent-setting case.
Pennsylvania state Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair County, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who has led and advocated for the constitutional amendment, said he didn’t know how the path forward would look, but that “it’s not how we get there, it’s where we get there.”
Victims, he said, have waited too long for this, and he’s not giving up.
“It’s difficult to not feel like I failed them,” Mr. Gregory said, “but I have to believe that this will get done and I am sorry for others’ failures. Please don’t give up hope. Please don’t give up faith.”