Pennsylvania Capitol Building on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. (Photo by Amanda Berg, for the Capital-Star).
Pennsylvania Senate Democrats argue that the upper chamber hasn’t fulfilled a commitment to providing relief for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, urging their Republican colleagues to pass a standalone bill letting now-adults file otherwise outdated lawsuits against their abusers.
And now that lawmakers in the upper chamber have returned to Harrisburg after more than a month-long break caused by organizational delays in the House of Representatives, Senate Democrats want Republicans to act on two pieces of House-approved legislation that propose a two-year window for survivors to pursue civil lawsuits against their abusers and the institutions that covered up their crimes.
“This is not a new issue,” Sen. Steven Santarsiero, D-Bucks, said during a Capitol press conference on Monday. “Some of us have been fighting for this right here in Harrisburg for over 10 years now. But we have a unique opportunity today in the state Senate to make it a reality.”
The GOP-controlled Senate in January approved a constitutional amendment proposing a two-year window for survivors to pursue civil lawsuits against their abusers and the institutions that covered up their crimes. But, Senate Republicans bundled the proposal into a three-part constitutional amendment package that included provisions for voter identification and expanded legislative authority over regulations.
Most legislative Democrats opposed the package — Senate Bill 1 — because they wanted to consider the three changes as standalone bills, not a group. When efforts to separate the proposals failed, Democrats accused their Republican colleagues of using abuse survivors to advance their legislative agenda.
Santarsiero said survivors are “being held hostage to two wish list” items for legislative Republicans.
Last week, the House of Representatives, now controlled by Democrats, approved two pieces of legislation — a constitutional amendment and a standalone bill — that would let survivors confront their abusers in court, prompting Senate Democrats to again urge action on the standalone proposals.
“We have an obligation. We have a moral obligation to make sure that this legislation gets passed, and we have a duty to fight every day until our colleagues on the other side of the aisle bring either or both of these bills up for a vote,” Santarsiero said.
The House voted 161-40 to approve the proposed constitutional change, House Bill 1, and 134-67 to approve a proposal, House Bill 2, to change state law and temporarily open a two-year window for survivors to file civil lawsuits. Both proposals were sent to the Senate for consideration.
“The longer we delay, the more survivors suffer,” Sen. Maria Collett, D-Montgomery, said. “And the harder their cases become to ultimately prove. We must not allow perpetrators of abuse or the institutions that shielded them to evade accountability any longer.”
In his remarks before the Senate approved the proposal in January, Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, said it would be the “final time” the chamber addressed the two-year window.
Pittman told the Capital-Star earlier this month that the upper chamber fulfilled its commitment to passing a two-year window. After last week’s House votes, he reiterated that attitude and urged the lower chamber to vote on Senate Bill 1, as presented in January.
“There is no valid justification for preventing voters from having a direct voice on voter identification, regulation reform, and opening the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse survivors through constitutional questions,” Pittman said in a statement. “The only reason these questions will not appear on the May ballot is because of the inaction of the speaker of the House.”
House Speaker Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, vowed to prioritize the two-year window while leading the chamber and urged the Senate to act on the House bills after last week’s votes.
“It’s time for the Senate to take a vote and to give the survivors of the commonwealth what they so deserve,” Rozzi said. “We have three branches of government for a reason. Let the courts decide whether it’s constitutional or not.”
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