‘We’ll be there, masks and all’: Closed out of the Capitol for months, sex abuse survivors reluctantly return to push for emergency reform

By: - March 21, 2021 7:22 am
LQ Anthony

Advocate LaQuisha Anthony outside the Pennsylvania State Capitol, where she and other sex abuse survivors plan to lobby lawmakers as they consider an emergency constitutional amendment this week. Image courtesy of LaQuisha Anthony.

LaQuisha Anthony nearly brought a panel of lawmakers to tears when she came to the state Capitol in 2019. She testified about a sexual assault she survived in college, and urged lawmakers to pass reforms that would make it easier for victims like her to sue and press charges against their abusers.

Anthony returned to Harrisburg a month later, again with a group of advocates who survived sexual abuse and assault. They lay on the Capitol’s hard marble floors while waiting for late-night votes, and cried together in the Senate gallery when lawmakers finally passed some of the reforms they’d been seeking for years. 

Advocates like Anthony thought they’d put most of that grueling work behind them. But she and other abuse survivors will be at the Capitol again this week, as lawmakers try to salvage a constitutional amendment that they hoped would pass easily this spring.

“It’s like a broken record at this point,” Anthony, who’s also an educator and the founder of the V.O.I.C.E. network for assault survivors, told the Capital-Star. “We’ve expressed how we feel, we’ve constantly been talking to legislators, subjecting ourselves to sharing our stories … we knew there would be a challenge, but nobody expected it would be this sort of challenge.”

State lawmakers have spent last week debating whether to use emergency powers to pass an amendment giving victims of child sexual abuse a two-year reprieve from the state’s statute of limitations, allowing them to revive old cases in civil court. 

The proposal was on track to appear before voters during the May 18 primary. But when the Wolf administration revealed it made a clerical error that torpedoed the amendment effort, lawmakers agreed to fast track it as an emergency proposal. 

The rarely used maneuver requires a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate. But lawmakers left Harrisburg last week without enough votes to approve it.

For advocates such as Anthony, the whiplash-inducing debate has been an unwelcome reminder of 2018 and 2019, when lawmakers dithered on how to implement reforms catalyzed by a wave of child sex abuse scandals. 

As the same subject engulfed the Capitol again this year, there’s been one notable difference: The near-total absence of victims.

In 2018 and 2019, victims of child sex abuse swarmed lawmakers’ offices and staged rallies to build support for statute of limitation reforms. At one point they stood outside every state senator’s office, reading aloud from the 2018 grand jury report on clergy sex abuse in Pennsylvania’s Catholic dioceses.

This image requires alt text, but the alt text is currently blank. Either add alt text or mark the image as decorative. Child sex abuse survivors and their allies rally at the state Capitol for statute of limitations reforms in 2018. Photo Source: Attorney General Josh Shapiro via Flickr.

Now, with the state Capitol building closed due to COVID-19, survivors of sexual abuse and assault have turned to phone calls, emails and social media posts to drum up support for the emergency amendment. 

Most of the victim advocacy inside the Capitol has fallen to two lawmakers who survived sex abuse as children: Reps. Jim Gregory, R-Blair, and Mark Rozzi, D-Berks.

Both men have emerged as leaders of the years-long reform effort in the Legislature. They’ve spent much of the past month trying to convince their colleagues to support the emergency maneuver, which some Republicans are calling an abuse of legislative power.  

Now that the proposal is jeopardized by Republican dissent, advocates say they’re changing course – just in time for the Capitol to reopen Monday

A group of sex abuse survivors kicked off a campaign last Thursday to pressure their lawmakers to scrap the emergency amendment altogether. They want them to create a two-year civil lawsuit window by amending state law instead.

“Everyone understands that the amendment failed and we need to go back to square one,” Marci Hamilton, CEO of the non-profit children advocacy group CHILD USA, told the Capital-Star. “Phone calls will get that message across … but when the Capitol reopens, we’ll be there, masks and all.”

The statutory change that victims want was on the cusp of passing the legislature in 2018. But it withered under resistance from former Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, who claimed the measure was unconstitutional and didn’t let it come up for a vote.

Scarnati agreed to advance the reform a year later as a constitutional amendment. It was part of a package of bills for child abuse victims that the legislature approved that November, when it also abolished Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations for child sex crimes. 

But survivors accused Scarnati of employing a stall tactic. Constitutional amendments require years to take effect: lawmakers must approve them in two consecutive legislative sessions before sending them to voters for ratification. 

Advocates like Anthony were disappointed that victims would have to wait even longer to bring abusers to court. They knew it would be at least a year until the measure was on the ballot, and that they’d have to mount a fresh advocacy campaign to sway voters ahead of the referendum. 

That was before the Wolf administration announced the clerical error that threatened to set back the clock on the amendment process. The news led to the immediate ouster of the state’s top election official, and, according to Anthony, “knocked the wind out of many survivors.”

“It was extremely emotional for all of us, even if it doesn’t directly impact us,” said Anthony, who doesn’t intend to bring a civil case if the window opens. 

With the emergency fix now on shaky ground in the House and Senate, Republican leaders have been mum on whether they’ll support a statutory change. 

A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward didn’t commit to running a statutory bill, but didn’t definitively rule it out, either. 

“We remain committed to resolving this difficult matter in a manner that guarantees and protects the rights of all victims,” spokeswoman Erica Clayton Wright said on Friday. 

Gregory told the Capital-Star that he hadn’t gotten any such assurances from leaders in his caucus. But he hopes that one last advocacy push could convince reluctant Republicans to support the emergency measure, which is why he’s personally inviting abuse survivors to come to Harrisburg to lobby his colleagues this week.

“Justice cannot be achieved until the unharmed feel the outrage as much as the harmed,” Gregory told the Capital-Star Thursday.

Some victim advocates, however, aren’t so sure. Jennifer Storm, who lobbied hard for the sex abuse reforms as the head of Pennsylvania’s Office of the Victim Advocate, said survivors have already made their pain clear to lawmakers. 

“How much more do you want and expect from these survivors?” Storm said. “They’re calling, emailing, posting on social media, doing everything they can while constricted by COVID. They shouldn’t be expected to come into that building to get legislators to do the right thing when their stories have been laid bare time and time again.”

Anthony says she and other survivors don’t relish rehashing their trauma in the state Capitol. But she also doesn’t see another way until the two-year window is approved, and victims who missed their chance to hold abusers and institutions accountable finally have their day in court. 

“I think that we’re going to have to advocate until we get to the finish line,” Anthony said. “We can’t stop, we can’t get comfortable and think it’s just going to happen, even though it should. We have to continue to apply pressure and let legislators know this is what we want.”

Capital-Star Staff Reporter Stephen Caruso contributed to this story. 

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.