Relief for child sex abuse survivors passes Senate as part of constitutional amendment package

‘The public should understand that this is happening only because the majority is choosing this path. It pains me that my vote today might be portrayed as a vote against survivors,’ Sen. Maria Collett, D-Montgomery, said

By: - January 11, 2023 4:27 pm
The ceiling of the main Rotunda inside Pennsylvania’s Capitol building. May 24, 2022. Harrisburg, Pa. (Photo by Amanda Berg, for the Capital-Star).

The ceiling of the main Rotunda inside Pennsylvania’s Capitol building. (Photo by Amanda Berg for the Capital-Star).

A proposed two-year statutory window for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, after years of delay, could make its way to the ballot this spring, along with a series of other proposed constitutional amendments approved by the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania Senate.

After an hours-long debate on Wednesday, lawmakers in the upper chamber voted 28-21 in favor of a three-part package, Senate Bill 1, that includes the statute of limitations constitutional amendment and GOP-backed voter identification requirements, and expanded legislative authority over regulations.

Every Senate Democrat, except for Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Lehigh, voted against the three-part amendment package not because they opposed the proposed statutory window but because they wanted to consider the three changes as standalone bills — not a group.

Democrats unsuccessfully attempted to appeal a decision from Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, to divide the proposals into individual bills and table the amendment package.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said his caucus members “unequivocally support” the two-year statutory window, saying that survivors of childhood sexual abuse deserve the opportunity to heal and face their abusers in court.

But just as voters would decide how to vote on each proposal included in the amendment package individually — if the questions make it to the ballot — Democrats wanted to do the same.

“The public should understand that this is happening only because the majority is choosing this path. It pains me that my vote today might be portrayed as a vote against survivors,” Sen. Maria Collett, D-Montgomery, said. “But I cannot, in good conscience, vote to support SB 1.”

Democrats argued that stricter voter identification requirements could disenfranchise people of color, seniors, and those with disabilities from voting. The voter identification amendment would also require enabling legislation, leaving Democrats with outstanding procedural questions.

While Democrats argued that expanding legislative authority over regulations would bypass constitutional limits, Republicans said the proposed change would restore their power, citing executive branch overreach in recent years. GOP members also argued that voter identification measures would help restore confidence in the electoral process by providing additional security measures.

And ultimately, Republicans repeatedly noted, Pennsylvania voters are the deciding voice on whether constitutional changes take effect.

“We are putting these questions before the voters. What are you afraid of, honestly?” Sen. Wayne Langerholc, R-Clearfield, said, insinuating that Democrats want to hear voters’ input on some issues but not all.

Langerholc and Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, noted in their remarks that three ballot questions — two about the executive branch’s emergency powers and one prohibiting discrimination based on race and ethnicity — appeared on the May 2021 primary ballot. Voters approved the proposed amendments, which passed the General Assembly in one bill before putting it forth to voters.

“This is an important issue, but it is not the only issue,” Pittman said of the two-year window. “And we have the opportunity now to resolve the significant matter of statute of limitations.”

The vote on the amendment package came at the end of the special session, requested last week by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, to focus on passing the statute of limitations constitutional amendment, which — if not for a Department of State advertising error — would have appeared on the May 2021 ballot.

While lawmakers in the chamber voted in favor of the package, Democrats moved to separate the statute of limitations proposal from the other amendments, saying Republicans were using survivors to advance their legislative agenda.

During an interview with the Capital-Star on Tuesday — one day after House Speaker Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, sent lawmakers home without voting on the issue — Marci Hamilton said anyone creating additional barriers to the statute of limitations amendment is “acting immorally.”

Hamilton, the founder and CEO of CHILD USA, a nonprofit think tank, has spent years advocating for statute of limitations reform, saying that limited timeframes and institutional protections make it harder for survivors to seek justice.

“By wrapping the politics together, when they wrap all the politics around the victims, they are acting immorally and putting themselves in a bad light,” she said.

In a follow-up statement, Hamilton noted Pennsylvania’s single-subject rule for legislation, which stops lawmakers from grouping multiple unrelated subjects into one bill. A constitutional amendment proposing a bill of rights for crime victims, which voters approved in 2019, was ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court in 2021 for this very reason.

Rozzi — who was abused by a priest as a child — vowed to put the statutory window before anything as long as he’s serving as House speaker, a post he won after a nomination from Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair, who’s also a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. However, Gregory called for his resignation in a letter earlier this week, citing his failure to uphold a “promise” to register as not affiliated with a political party.

Language for the voter identification and regulatory authority constitutional amendments came from a five-part package passed by the Legislature in July. The current package is missing language asking voters to decide whether the state Constitution should declare there is “no constitutional right to taxpayer-funded abortion or other right relating to abortion.”

But Sen. Amanda Cappelletti, D-Delaware, argued that the proposal to let lawmakers disapprove regulations without facing a gubernatorial veto could change the regulatory conditions that allow providers to offer abortion care.

Republicans rejected a series of amendments from Boscola, including one that would have asked voters whether the state Constitution should protect reproductive rights, a rejection Costa responded by asking his colleagues across the aisle: “Why are you afraid to bring that question to this floor?”

The House has until Jan. 27 to pass the statutory window constitutional amendment, and the other proposed changes, for them to appear on the May ballot.

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