Pa. House leaders plan emergency fix on abuse lawsuits after filing error
By Peter Smith
February 04, 2021
|The Philadelphia Inquirer|
Photo by Kalim A. Bhatti
Pennsylvania House leaders support using an emergency declaration to overcome a paperwork blunder by the secretary of state’s office and get a proposed constitutional amendment to voters this May that would allow lawsuits over long-ago sexual abuse.
The measure was made public Thursday afternoon on the House floor by Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks County. Leaders of both parties in the House voiced their support. Mr. Rozzi also said Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, indicated to him he supports the idea and would discuss it with the majority Republican caucus there.
The measure has been long sought by victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and others in cases often going back decades. They have been barred by state law against filing suits against dioceses and other organizations over long-ago abuse by the statute of limitations.
Thursday’s legislative move comes three days after it was revealed that the secretary of state’s office failed last year to publish as required the Legislature’s endorsement of the constitutional amendment in 2020. That failure, which cost Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar her job, would have prevented the amendment from going on this year’s ballot.
“This was an absolutely horrible mistake that has been done,” said Mr. Rozzi, who is himself a survivor of child sexual abuse by a priest, and who has been a leading proponent of the bill for years. “I feel horrible for the victims” and those who worked to bring the bill forward, he said on the House floor.
The amendment would create a two-year window for people to file lawsuits over abuse and those they deem responsible for enabling it, regardless of how long ago it occurred. Similar measures in other states have led to a wave of litigation against Catholic dioceses and other religious and youth-serving organizations.
Normally, a Pennsylvania constitutional amendment requires approval by two consecutive legislative sessions before heading to voters. Having been approved in early 2020, the amendment was approved again by the House this year, and Senate approval was expected.
But early this week, it was revealed that the secretary of state’s office had failed to carry out a necessary step in the process before the November election, which was to publish a notice of the pending amendment in “at least two newspapers in every county in which such newspapers shall be published.”
But the constitution also allows for a fast-track for amendments if two-thirds of both houses approve in a single legislative session. That provision allows lawmakers to act if “a major emergency threatens or is about to threaten the Commonwealth and if the safety or welfare of the Commonwealth required prompt amendment.”
House leaders from both parties endorsed the move during Thursday’s session.
Rep. Kerry A. Benninghoff, the majority leader, committed to working with fellow Republicans on the bill. And Rep. Joanna McClinton, the Democratic leader, said lawmakers have heard from people statewide “who want to access justice” because they “have been brutalized … too many times in the name of faith.”
Jennifer Kocher, communications director for Mr. Corman, said he has been in touch with the attorney general, House leaders and proponents of the amendment.
“To date, we have not committed to any specific legislative strategy, but are committed to supporting the victims who were impacted by the Department [of State]’s extreme carelessness,” she said.
Mr. Rozzi said the plan is for lawmakers to consider a new bill, declaring an emergency.
Mr. Rozzi said that while the constitution doesn’t require a declaration specifying the nature of the emergency, “we believe this is an emergency.” Without holding to account those responsible for abuse, he said, “victims are going to continue to commit suicide, children are going to be sexually abused.”
Efforts intensified to create a window of time for lawsuits over past abuse in 2018, after the release of a statewide grand jury report into sexual abuse by priests across seven decades in six dioceses, including Pittsburgh’s and Greensburg’s.
Victims have often said it takes them years to come to terms with the abuse they suffered, and by the time they have done so, the statute of limitations for suing has long passed.