Survivors of child sexual abuse appear to be one step closer to having a new, two-year legal window to sue their alleged abusers after Gov. Tom Wolf and legislative leaders reached an agreement to pursue the initiative early next year.
In a joint statement released Wednesday night, Wolf said GOP leaders that control the General Assembly have agreed to pass a measure early next session that would amend the state constitution to create a two-year window for survivors to file civil claims.
Wolf apologized for the administrative failure that halted the amendment from being put on the ballot, highlighting his “deep regret and sincerest apologies” to the state’s sex abuse victims. However, he said he was “grateful” that an agreement has been secured.
“After speaking directly with legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle, I'm pleased that they have committed to prioritize second passage of a constitutional amendment early next session,” the governor said in a statement. “I am grateful for this agreement so that survivors can seek a path forward toward justice."
The constitutional amendment, which must be passed in two straight legislative sessions before voters can decide on the policy in a ballot referendum, was on track to make the ballot in 2021, but an administrative error at the Pennsylvania Department of State derailed the effort, forcing lawmakers to restart the multi-year constitutional amendment process.
The error prompted former Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar to resign, and an investigation into the mistake found that the Department of State failed to publicly advertise the amendment in newspapers in each county – as required by the state constitution – as a result of “a combination of internal systemic failures.”
The Office of State Inspector General, which conducted the review, found that the department “lacked executive oversight, written policies and procedures, proper staff training, and consistent communication” about the constitutional amendment process.
Following the department’s failure to publish the amendment, Wolf and state lawmakers called for a two-year window to be created through the normal legislative process, rather than a constitutional amendment, which would allow the policy to be advanced more quickly.
But state Sen. Kim Ward, a Westmoreland County Republican who is the majority leader of the state Senate, said last year that a constitutional window would provide the strongest legal remedy for survivors, and said that the state Senate would not pursue a statutory fix, nor would lawmakers attempt to advance the measure through an expedited emergency process.
Ward’s reluctance to advance a statutory window for survivors at times drew condemnation from Democrats and advocates, like Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who argued that the votes existed to pass legislation to create a statutory two-year window.
Pa. Attorney General Josh Shapiro says he believes the votes exist in the state Senate to get a bill to create a statutory window to Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk. pic.twitter.com/R3riTmObLQ— Justin Sweitzer (@justin_sweitzer) April 19, 2021
This week, Ward said moving forward with the constitutional amendment next year will help provide a level of closure for victims who sought a two-year window.
“Without question, all victims of childhood sexual abuse should have the ability to face their abusers. As I have consistently stated, the constitutional amendment is the strongest legal position to bring closure to this matter for all victims (public and private)," Ward said in a statement.
"Remaining true to our commitment, we plan to take the next step in the constitutional amendment process in the next legislative session, just as we have in previous legislative sessions, and consistent with the multiple legislative actions already taken to protect children and families from such heinous acts,” she added.
The creation of a two-year retroactive window was one of a series of recommendations made by the the 40th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury, which uncovered instances of widespread child sex abuse within the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania.
Two of the leading advocates for such a window, state Reps. Jim Gregory and Mark Rozzi – both of whom are child sex abuse survivors themselves – expressed optimism that legal relief for survivors will soon be available.
"As we approach the two-year mark of victims having to wait again to pass this constitutional amendment, I am pleased that this legislation has not been forgotten by my colleagues in leadership," Gregory, a Republican from Blair County, said in a statement. "For me, the victims waiting two more years haven't been forgotten for one day. The commitment to get it on the ballot next spring is a must."
Rozzi, a Berks County Democrat, appeared to agree, and stressed that state lawmakers need to provide the window in order for abusers to be held accountable.
“Victims and survivors alike deserve their day in court and they certainly deserve to know the truth, whether it is about their perpetrator or the institution that aided and abetted these heinous crimes," he said. "There must be accountability for the reprehensible murder of each child's soul."