Abuse survivors and advocates push emergency measure for May ballot
By Deb Erdley
February 06, 2021
A bipartisan team of Pennsylvania lawmakers will invoke a rare emergency provision of the Pennsylvania Constitution, seeking to restore a constitutional amendment ballot question long sought by victims of child sex abuse. An administrative error by the Department of State, discovered late last month, prevents the question from appearing on the May 18 ballot.
The proposed amendment gives child sexual abuse victims a retroactive two-year “window” in which to file civil lawsuits, no matter how long ago the alleged abuse occurred. The enabling legislation was approved in the General Assembly on three separate votes — two in the House and one in the Senate — and was headed for a final Senate vote this month to put it on the May ballot. But the Department of State failed to complete an essential task: legal advertising of the proposed amendment.
The failure led to the resignation of Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, who officially left office Friday, and derailed the two-year process. Abuse survivors, bitterly disappointed, are scrambling for a way to move the bill over the finish line.
State Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Hollidaysburg, said a bipartisan group of lawmakers is drafting a bill that would invoke Article 11 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, which allows for action in the case of an emergency. Gregory, an abuse survivor, was the prime sponsor of the initial bill to amend the constitution.
The Associated Press reported that Article 11, which dates to 1967, was invoked three times in the 1970s to provide emergency aid after devastating storms swept the state.
Gregory anticipates court challenges but is optimistic the House can write a bill that would survive and make its way to the primary ballot.
“We are working toward this as I speak. This hasn’t been used very often, and we want to make sure we get this right. But I put my faith in our excellent legal counsel,” Gregory said.
Ryan O’Connor, 48, a clergy abuse survivor from Plum, has spoken out about his abuse by a priest as a child in his Johnstown parish at age 10. He went to police in 1997, only to be told his case was too old to file. He was among the first survivors to suggest it was time to push for a constitutional amendment on emergency grounds.
“There’s no more resting on our laurels. There’s no more, ‘You can do it in two years,’ ” O’Connor said. “It’s there in black and white in Article 11 of the Pennsylvania Constitution that in an emergency, where the welfare of the commonwealth is at stake, you can do an emergency vote. And if you pass it by two-thirds in the House and Senate, you can move an amendment to the ballot immediately.”
O’Connor said it is, indeed, an emergency to the many abuse survivors who were led to believe an amendment would be passed this year.
Gregory, a Latrobe native and second-term GOP lawmaker, campaigned on a pledge to get survivors a day in court. He has been joined by state Rep. Mark Rozzi, a Berks County Democrat.
Rozzi is an abuse survivor who has spoken of his rape at the hand of a parish priest and has testified before a statewide grand jury on clergy sexual abuse. Since he was elected in 2013, he has been pushing to reform the state’s statute of limitations and provide a way for complaints outside the statute to go to court.
Pressure to pass such legislation gained momentum following the release of a 2018 statewide grand jury report that detailed hundreds of allegations of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests across Pennsylvania over a period of more than 50 years. The report included a recommendation that the state create a window of opportunity for old complaints to be filed in court.
A succession of reforms have extended the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse for new complaints that allow victims to go to the courts anytime until their 50th birthday. Those with older cases, however, still do not have access to the courts.
Many initially proposed passing a statute that would allow for such claims. But in 2019, former Senate Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati blocked a similar statute at the last minute, and legal experts pointed to prior research that suggested a statute alone could not pass constitutional muster. In reaction, a group including Gregory, Rozzi and others decided to embark on the long journey to amend the constitution.
Marci Hamilton is CEO of Child USA, a group that advocates for statute of limitation reforms. A prominent legal scholar now affiliated with University of Pennsylvania, she said the big issue in Pennsylvania is where the state Senate might stand on an emergency amendment.
The Senate initially passed the bill to amend the constitution 44-6 and was poised to pass it a second time.
Although there have been reports that some Senate Republicans are lining up behind the effort, Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, said her caucus has yet to discuss the issues.
“I can’t comment further than to say the Senate Judiciary Committee is planning to hold a hearing concerning the dereliction of duty by the secretary of state and what next actionable steps are possible,” Ward said.
Back in Plum, O’Connor — who has been waiting for his day in court for nearly 40 years — is angry.
“You do not drop the ball on something like this and nothing happens. … Today, I’m sick of what this has done to our lives, the emotional roller coaster we’ve been on. We don’t deserve this,” he said. “A standalone statute is not going to work. The only way this happens is a constitutional amendment.”
Hamilton said the time for action is now.
“It remains our view enough is enough. Let’s stop dragging victims through these political permutations,” Hamilton said. “This is just a matter of traumatizing and retraumatizing them.”