Lawmakers not keen on clergy sex abuse bill maneuver after state error
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HARRISBURG — When Republican state Rep. Jim Gregory learned Monday from Gov. Tom Wolf that an administrative error will delay a decision on whether survivors can sue for decades-old sexual abuse, he broke down and sobbed uncontrollably.
“That’s where I had to leave it with him — to hope he understood the gravity of what this means to victims, to know that we could be so close to achieving something for them that has been decades in wait,” Gregory, a survivor of child sexual abuse, said of his conversation with Wolf. “To now have to say, again, you’re going to have to wait. I would believe that my emotions mirrored the emotions of other victims.”
The Department of State recently discovered that it had failed last year to advertise a proposed change to the state constitution that would create a two-year window so victims of decades-old abuse can sue perpetrators and the institutions that covered up the crimes.
The mistake means that voters, who could have voted on the change as early as this May, will have to wait at least another two years to weigh in.
The devastating development Monday swiftly led to Secretary Kathy Boockvar’s resignation and to discussions in the Capitol about other avenues for relief.
One of them is an emergency constitutional amendment that would require a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate in order to put the question before the voters this year, House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, said in a statement.
But some survivors and their advocates believe the quickest way to remedy the problem is to abandon the time-consuming path of amending the state constitution, and instead approve the two-year window through regular legislation.
It will be a difficult battle — and all eyes will be on the Pennsylvania Senate.
That is where top Republicans in 2018 refused to vote on a proposed bill that would have established a two-year window. The debate occurred against the backdrop of emotionally charged pleas by child sexual abuse survivors, many of whom traveled to the Capitol to hold vigils and other events.
Currently, state law bars civil claims for childhood sexual abuse from people older than 30. That, in turn, prohibits recovery of damages for decades-old acts like many of those described in a blistering, 2018 state grand jury report on clergy abuse in Catholic dioceses across the state.
The report recommended state officials open a two-year window so survivors could get long-denied justice for the crimes committed against them.
After the report was released, GOP senators, led by then-Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, asserted that making a retroactive change to state law would violate the remedies clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution. Lobbyists for the Catholic Church and the insurance industry also fiercely fought against any retroactive changes, saying they would deal a devastating financial blow.
Despite furious negotiations, the two-year window bill died when the legislative session ended in 2018.
But when the legislature returned in 2019 for a new two-year session, legislators — Gregory among them — negotiated a compromise: pass the two-year window as a constitutional amendment. The process requires the legislature to approve the proposed change in two consecutive sessions before it can go to voters for consideration.
With Scarnati no longer in the Senate — he retired at the end of last year — lawmakers could try to revive support for that path.
In a statement, Wolf signaled he would support a change through the legislative process. And five Senate Democrats quickly announced their intention to introduce a bill that would establish the two-year civil window.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro, whose office spearheaded the investigation that led to the 2018 grand jury report, said he has advocated from the start for pursuing the change legislatively. He believes that option should be considered again.
“As you know, I have made it clear all along that pursuing a constitutional amendment was an unnecessary hurdle and delayed justice for these victims,” he said.
In an interview Monday, newly elected Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, said his caucus was blindsided by the Department of State’s administrative failure and had not yet had a chance to meet to discuss if there was support for passing the two-year window statutorily.
But he noted that many of his Republican colleagues in the chamber strongly believe that doing so would violate the constitution.
“If you knowingly vote on something that is unconstitutional, you are violating the oath of office,” Corman said. “Many members had that concern last time around.”
Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, also signaled that a straight-up vote on a two-year window bill is unlikely.
“The reason the legislature did a proposed constitutional amendment instead of a statutory change to begin with is that the General Assembly cannot retroactively eliminate an accrued defense without violating the remedies clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution,” Ward said in a statement. “That hasn’t changed. The secretary’s dereliction of duty has put us back to square one.”
Corman had harsh words for Boockvar, whose office neglected to properly advertise the constitutional amendment for a two-year window. Boockvar said Monday she takes responsibility for the error and will resign Feb. 5.
“To have it fall through the cracks somehow is off-the-charts unbelievable,” Corman said. “Her resignation does not really do justice to the problem.”
Though several other constitutional amendments approved in the last legislative session were properly circulated by Boockvar’s agency, the proposed two-year window was not. In an apology, department spokesperson Wanda Murren said it was “simple human error.”
Wolf’s office on Monday would not say who was directly responsible for the oversight. Though the administration has said it will investigate the mistake, that’s still an unsatisfying answer for Gregory.
“To what end? Because for the victims, they get to read about an investigation that has to take place because it costs them another two years of justice,” he said. “It’s a reliving of everything over and over and over again.”
Gregory said he still believes a constitutional amendment would provide survivors with more certainty than a statutory change.
“I said back then that I would go to Harrisburg and introduce a constitutional amendment to address Sen. Scarnati’s concern and to give victims certainty that it would be constitutionally protected,” Gregory said. “Now, if they want to go down this road again, we are not providing the certainty that the constitutional amendment provides.”
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