Pa. House returns to pass sexual abuse survivors’ bills; GOP objects to special session rules

‘We don’t need to allow another procedural challenge, because the rules themselves are outside the bounds of normalcy,’ Republican Leader Bryan Cutler said

By: - February 21, 2023 6:00 pm

Pennsylvania House Speaker Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, presides over a special session to pass statute of limitations reform for sexual abuse survivors on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023. (Capital-Star photo by Peter Hall)

Seven weeks after adjourning in a deadlock over its operating rules, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives returned to a special session on Tuesday and advanced legislation to give adult victims of childhood sexual abuse a chance to hold their attackers accountable.

Lawmakers voted to move a bill out of committee with bipartisan support to amend the state Constitution and create a two-year exception to the civil statute of limitations for sexual abuse lawsuits.

Democrats advanced a second bill to make a law giving survivors two years to sue their attackers and the institutions that enabled them. But the two Republican members of the five-member House Committee to Provide Justice to Otherwise Barred Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse voted against the measure.

Republicans, in the minority for the first time in more than a decade, stridently objected to rules adopted for the special session that require a two-thirds majority to amend a bill.

Democratic leaders called the complaints a delay tactic, noting that the rules are for a special session with the singular purpose of passing the statute of limitations reform that survivors of abuse by clergy and other institutional figures have sought for nearly two decades. 

Majority Whip Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia said the proposed rules had been available to Republican leaders and their legal counsel for nearly a month, and that the only changes made to them were those the Republicans had requested.

“This is nothing more than a delaying tactic. And we need to get on with the people’s business. Isn’t that what you all said you all wanted to do for weeks,” Harris said during debate on the House floor. “So let’s get on with the people’s business.”

Calling them “draconian,” and arguably unconstitutional, House Minority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, warned the rules could lead to another delay in relief for sexual abuse survivors whose legal claims are barred because they’re too old. 

Cutler was referring to an advertising error by the Department of State that scuttled an earlier effort to pass the amendment. 

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve already seen what government not doing its job when the Department of State failed to properly advertise and how that impacted this issue. We don’t need to allow another procedural challenge, because the rules themselves are outside the bounds of normalcy,” Cutler said after the votes. 

Other Republicans raised concerns about the lack of an ethics committee in the special session rules, although House Speaker Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, noted during debate on the House floor that the rules would govern the chamber only as long as necessary to pass the relief bills.

Rep. Kate Klunk, R-York, said the rule requiring a two-thirds majority to amend a bill meant that she was unable to offer an amendment to expand the House’s sexual harassment policy to include anyone who does business with lawmakers inside or outside of the Capitol.

During a series of public hearings Rozzi held this month on the new rules for the House, an organized labor lobbyist leveled allegations against an unnamed House lawmaker who touched her inappropriately during a meeting over drinks to discuss legislation. 

“I hope that at some point, we will be able to offer amendments to our special session most in addition to house rules when we get back into regular session that include language on sexual harassment because there are victims out there. And we need to protect folks who come and interact with us here on a daily basis in the Capitol and our district offices,” Klunk said.

And Rep. Dawn Keefer, R-York, said the way that the proposed rules were published and pushed through to a vote prevented discussion of adding language on a gift ban for lawmakers.

“The two-thirds is outrageous, but not allowing us to amend the rules and have even a debate or discussion on it really is a disservice to our entire caucus,” Keefer said. 

The constitutional amendment was passed by the House and Senate in the last session and must be approved by both chambers in this session for it to be put before voters in a statewide referendum in November.

The House will hold a non-voting session Wednesday and return Thursday when it will be able to hold third consideration votes on the abuse survivors’ legislation.

Last month, the Senate passed the amendment language as part of a package that included amendments to require voter identification and give the General Assembly power to overturn regulations promulgated by the executive branch.

Rozzi has said he intends to pass the survivors’ amendment and a statutory window for abuse survivors to sue as standalone legislation. 

Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, has said the vote last month is the last time the Senate would address the amendment, adding that the only path forward for the abuse survivors’ amendment is for the House to concur on the Senate bill. 

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Peter Hall
Peter Hall

Peter Hall has been a journalist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for more than 20 years, most recently covering criminal justice and legal affairs for The Morning Call in Allentown. His career at local newspapers and legal business publications has taken him from school board meetings to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and many points of interest between. He earned a degree in journalism from Susquehanna University.