Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, was abused by a priest as a child and has been at the forefront of the PA General Assembly’s attempts to adjust laws for victims of childhood sexual abuse. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)
In his first act at the helm, Pennsylvania’s newly elected independent state House speaker vowed to halt all other legislative action until a constitutional amendment to provide legal relief for victims of childhood sexual assault passes both chambers of the Legislature.
On Friday, Gov. Tom Wolf called on the state House and Senate to convene in a special session Monday to hold the second constitutionally required votes on the amendment to retroactively extend the time for adults who were abused as children to file lawsuits.
The General Assembly must vote on the amendment by the beginning of February so that it can be advertised and included on ballots for the May 16 primary.
That sets the stage for a clash with Republican leaders in the House and Senate who say the survivors’ amendment should not be prioritized over other proposed amendments that must also be approved to be considered in the primary election.
Leaders in the Republican-controlled Senate said amendment language proposed to provide for voter identification, election audits and legislative review of regulations is equally important.
“Gov. Wolf’s call of a special session a week before his term ends is an attempt by him to prioritize one issue while there are equally important issues that deserve the same consideration among the voters,” Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, and Majority Leader Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, said in a joint statement. Wolf, a Democrat, leaves office on Jan. 17.
House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler also said the special session was unnecessary and that the House needs to first complete its work to agree on rules and organize committees.
“Passing this constitutional amendment was something we have done easily in the past and have already committed to running this session. We can do this work in regular session, while also addressing other urgent needs the people of Pennsylvania expect us to address in a timely manner,” the Lancaster County lawmaker said.
Rozzi, a survivor of sexual assault by a priest at his middle school, framed the special session as a matter of life and death, referring to fellow survivors who have taken their own lives. He has maintained a singular focus on passing legislation to give people abused as children the right to sue their attackers since his election in 2012.
He joined with Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair, who is also a child sexual abuse survivor, to push for the amendment in 2018. After passing the General Assembly in consecutive sessions, the amendment was set to go before voters in 2021, but an advertising error by the Department of State derailed the process and forced them to start anew.
“If we are late, we risk this life saving amendment not being placed on the ballot until the November General Election,” Rozzi said.
“With that in mind, let me be clear: as long as I am the speaker of the House of Representatives, the House will consider no other legislation until the General Assembly passes the language of Representative Gregory’s constitutional amendment,” Rozzi said in a statement.
Republican leaders in both chambers struck an agreement with Wolf in August to prioritize the amendment votes in this session.
House Democratic Caucus spokesperson Nicole Reigelman said the special session is consistent with the agreement, and the caucus applauded Rozzi and Wolf for ensuring the amendment receives swift action.
The amendment would give sexual abuse survivors whose claims are too old to seek legal relief a two-year window to file a lawsuit. In Pennsylvania, people who are sexually abused as children have until age 30 to sue, after which, the claims are legally considered too old.
A bill proposed by Rozzi during last year’s session would have opened the window legislatively. That proposal, likely a faster approach, was preferred by advocates and Wolf following the Department of State’s error.
Rozzi’s bill stalled in the upper chamber, with Ward, then the Senate GOP’s floor leader, whose office controlled the voting calendar, refusing to call for a floor vote on the proposal, citing concerns about its legality.
She also faced accusations of purposefully holding up the legislation.
At the time, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, now the Democratic governor-elect, said that Ward, a practicing Catholic, was afraid of going against lobbyists for the Catholic Church, and the insurance industry, which oppose the proposed two-year window.
Advocates echoed similar allegations.
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