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Pa. House moves to get legal relief for clergy abuse victims back on ballot

Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA and Cynthia Fernandez of Spotlight PA
Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar speaks during a news conference, Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020, in Harrisburg, Pa., about counting votes from Tuesday's election. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

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HARRISBURG — In a rarely used move, leaders in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives have agreed to employ an emergency tactic to allow voters to decide whether survivors of decades-old sexual abuse should have a chance to sue the perpetrators and institutions that covered up the crimes.

The chamber’s decision follows the shocking admission this week that “human error” by the Wolf administration would prevent voters from deciding the issue during the May primary. The news devastated Pennsylvania’s community of survivors, who have long pushed for a two-year reprieve in the statute of limitations so they can bring litigation and led Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar to resign.

State Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, a survivor of child sexual abuse and a longtime champion of the two-year window, said Thursday that he had received commitments from Republicans who control both chambers to run an emergency constitutional amendment so that the referendum can appear on the May ballot.

More:Boockvar's exit emboldens GOP critics of her election oversight

Emergency amendments, according to the state constitution, can be used in situations where “the safety or welfare of the commonwealth requires prompt” change. Unlike traditional constitutional amendments, which require the Legislature’s approval in two consecutive legislative sessions, an emergency amendment only needs to be voted on once in both chambers. If it receives two-thirds approval, it then can immediately be positioned to appear on the ballot.

Emergency constitutional amendments have only been used three times before, all in the 1970s, according to House staff.

“It’s rarely been used,” said Bill Patton, spokesperson for House Democrats.

Speaking on the House floor Thursday, Rozzi said he had spoken to both House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff and Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, both Republicans from Centre County, who told him they would bring the emergency amendment measure up for a vote.

“With those commitments, we will be able to pass a standalone bill quickly and get this on the May ballot as originally intended,” Rozzi said.

Senate Republicans, however, sounded less certain about whether they will bring an emergency amendment to a floor vote. They said only that they are committed to “reviewing” what the House sends over.

It is unclear when the House will vote on the emergency amendment, which was first pushed by House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia.

Despite the tight deadline, House Democrats said they are confident there’s enough time to move the measure through both chambers and get it on the ballot. They noted that the advertising requirements for emergency constitutional amendments are less stringent.

Earlier this week, Boockvar, head of the Pennsylvania Department of State, announced she would resign after it was revealed her agency had made a mistake that would delay a statewide vote on the two-year window.

The Legislature had initially approved a traditional constitutional amendment for voters to decide on the window. The first passage came in the 2019-2020 legislative session. Under state law, the Department of State is required to advertise the proposal statewide, but it failed to do so.

Gov. Tom Wolf said “human error” was behind the lapse. Department of State officials, however, have refused to give details about what went wrong.

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