[Opinion] Sex-abuse law blunder on Kathy Boockvar’s watch is a titanic mess for Pa. child victims | Maria Panaritis
By Maria Panaritis
February 02, 2021
|Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (right) shakes hands with Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, after signing legislation into law to expand the rights of child sexual abuse victims to sue in November 2019.|
Photo by Matt Rourke
|In October 2018, a proposed statute of limitations expansion failed to pass despite frenzied lobbying that included clergy sexual-abuse victims gathering in the Capitol.|
Photo by STEVEN M. FALK
|Gov. Tom Wolf and others rallying in September 2018 at the state Capitol in Harrisburg in favor of an expanded statute of limitations for child sexual abuse.|
|Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar speaks as Gov. Tom Wolf looks on Nov. 4, 2020, during a news conference about the general election.|
Photo by Julio Cortez
|Rep. Mark Rozzi, D., Berks, leads a child sex abuse legislation rally at the Pennsylvania Capitol on April 3, 2017. Behind him are three dozen fellow childhood sexual abuse victims and advocates.|
Photo by Maria Panaritis
For years, Pa. Republicans stalled on expanded rights to sue abusers. Now “human error” by Democratic Gov. Wolf’s administration has derailed a long-awaited law.
If an 860-word column could hope to convey speechlessness, this one would be it.
Hours after news broke of a bureaucratic blunder in Harrisburg that resulted in further damage to victims of child sexual abuse in Pennsylvania, it remained hard to know what to say.
“It just never ends,” State Rep. Mark Rozzi put it moments after answering my call Monday night. I couldn’t have agreed more with those four words.
For 16 years in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, people like Rozzi, who was molested as a child within a corrupt institution that knowingly harbored and hid pedophiles, were told they could not sue as adults. After the Catholic abuse scandal broke open in 2002, lawmakers in Harrisburg began blocking legislative efforts to alter the civil statute of limitations so that victims could sue as adults many years beyond what the merciless law had allowed.
In late 2019, that finally changed.
A long-resistant Republican-controlled legislature said yes to a compromise bill. The Democratic governor signed it, and a constitutional amendment seeking to give victims a two-year window to the statute of limitations to file lawsuits for long-ago abuse was set to be put to voters as early as this spring.
Then this week came word of a terrible unraveling, and from the office of Pennsylvania’s top elections official, Kathy Boockvar.
At about 10 a.m. on Monday Rozzi, the Democratic lawmaker who had spent years as the fiery leader of the victims’ movement in Pennsylvania, was preparing to head outside to shovel snow. He checked his cell phone for a minute and was alarmed. He saw a blitzkrieg of messages.
“We need to talk to you” was the plea, and it was coming from members of Gov. Tom Wolf’s staff, Rozzi said.
Minutes later, on the phone with the governor, Rozzi felt his heart sink.
“He was like, ‘Mark, there’s been a problem,’ ” Rozzi said.
The governor said the hard-fought victims’ law had been fouled up before even being delivered to voters in a referendum. Someone within the Pennsylvania Department of State had failed to advertise, as required, that the proposed constitutional amendment had been passed by the legislature.
How bad was this? Very bad. Voters would have to wait at least another two years before the chance to consider any such change to the state constitution.
Department Secretary Boockvar would be resigning by week’s end, Wolf told Rozzi, and the press reported the same soon after. The governor promised an investigation.
“You could hear in his voice,” Rozzi said. “He was probably as punched in the gut as I was.”
Just four months before the pandemic struck, Rozzi and Wolf had been seated next to each other, in November 2019, as Wolf signed this very bill into law.
A photo by Matt Rourke of the Associated Press showed the two men in a clenched handshake: Wolf with one hand on Rozzi’s shoulder while the onetime Catholic altar boy locked eyes with the governor.
For years, I had watched Rozzi pound marble in the Capitol and the pavement beyond for this law. He angered powerful politicians with his sometimes brutal appraisals of their apparent allegiance to the Catholic Church and insurance-lobby interests who opposed any change that would subject them to big payouts.Rozzi ended up backing the constitutional amendment in 2019 only after it became clear that Republican leaders would never support Plan A: a bill that would have instantly made the retroactive filing of civil litigation legal in Pennsylvania. (The GOP resisted on grounds it was unconstitutional — an assessment not shared by Rozzi and other victim advocates.)
Now the entire effort is back at zero.
Just reading Spotlight PA’s account of the recent debacle after it broke the news was disorienting. As a journalist who has chronicled the rot of Catholic church abuse since 2002, and the grand jury reports exposing cover-ups in diocese after diocese, all I could do for hours was shake my head.
The bureaucratic bungling supposedly was an accident. If so, what a fatalistic blow. One can only wonder why, in Pennsylvania, civil justice remains eternally elusive for a class of citizens already subjected as children to some of the worst violence and trauma imaginable.
“Nothing surprises me anymore,” Rozzi told me, “but I have to say, I’m shocked. I’m stunned. How could this happen?”
Republicans were quick to batter the Wolf administration for this devastating oversight in implementation of the law. And they were right to do so. This is a titanic blunder.
“At best, this was incompetence. At worst, this was malfeasance,” Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman said in a statement Monday.
We need answers from Wolf about how this happened and who, exactly, is responsible.
But Republicans have been no angels in the delays that made victims wait so many years for even this moment of despair.
Now is the majority party’s chance to truly repent. The GOP should revert to Plan A. Pass a statute-of-limitations bill straightaway that does not amend the state constitution. And let the courts decide, as they have in other states, if justice is to be delivered or denied.