Advocates again call on Pa. Senate to open two-year window for child sex abuse survivors

‘We will never give up this fight,’ state Rep. Mark Rozzi shouted in the Capitol Rotunda during a Monday press conference

By: - April 4, 2022 3:44 pm

Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, speaks during a press conference at the Capitol on Monday, April 4, 2022 (Capital-Star photo).

As the Pennsylvania Senate returned to session this week, advocates gathered in Harrisburg to again urge chamber leadership to pass legislation that would open a two-year window for child sex abuse survivors to pursue civil lawsuits against their abusers.

“We will never give up this fight,” state Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, an abuse survivor, shouted in the Capitol Rotunda during a Monday press conference. “We will never go away.”

If it weren’t for an advertising error made last year by the Department of State, a proposed constitutional amendment authorizing the window for child sex abuse survivors would have appeared on the May 2021 primary election ballot.

Rozzi introduced a bill to open a two-year window through the legislative process. The bill passed the House and advanced out of the Senate Judiciary Committee last year with bipartisan support, but it has not seen a vote from the upper chamber.

He accused Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, and Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, of letting survivors down by failing to hold a floor vote on the legislation.

Ward, who controls the Senate’s voting calendar, has expressed concerns over the bill’s constitutionality. Last fall, she told reporters that her office was reviewing the legislation and added that she was “having a hard time getting to a point where I say this is constitutional.”

Lawmakers considered an emergency process to get the proposed change on the ballot last year, but that failed, with Ward saying that it did not meet emergency status criteria. The Republican-controlled Legislature restarted the constitutional amendment process in response to the error. Ward has repeatedly said that a ballot question is the best way to allow survivors to seek justice. 

“We need to do more to save innocent lives, and that day is today,” Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests President Shaun Dougherty, a survivor of child sex abuse, said.

He added: “Does Pennsylvania have a representative democracy, or is this really Kim Ward’s plutocracy funded by the deep pockets of the Catholic Church lobbyists?”

Marci Hamilton, founder and CEO of the advocacy nonprofit Child USA, said the proposed constitutional amendment is “quickly becoming something from the past.”

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who attended the press conference on Monday with Attorney General Josh Shapiro, has said he would sign Rozzi’s legislation. Shapiro, a Democrat who is running for governor, has defended its constitutionality.

Wolf, who leaves office in January 2023, also announced that he plans to call a special session if the General Assembly fails to pass legislation opening a two-year window. 

“This needs to be a top priority,” he said.

The proposed constitutional amendment is expected to see its second vote in the next legislative session, which begins in January 2023, Erica Clayton Wright, a spokesperson for Ward, told the Capital-Star in an email. That means it could reach voters in the 2023 primary election.

Wright added that Wolf’s plan to “elevate this matter to ‘special session’ status is a media play” that bypasses voters’ chance to decide whether to open a two-year window.

“I understand Gov. Wolf’s will to correct the mistake of his administration to initiate the public review process, but bypassing the proper process does not properly vet this matter with the public,” Wright wrote. “More importantly, it does not give victims the justice they deserve.”

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