Top Pa. election official Boockvar to step down after error delays sex abuse reform

By: and - February 1, 2021 12:43 pm

Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar on October 27, 2020 | Source: Commonwealth Media Services

(*This story was updated with additional details at 4:16 p.m. on 2/1/2021. It was corrected at 11:45 a.m. on 2/2/21 to accurately reflect the perpetrators of state Rep. Jim Gregory’s childhood abuse.)

A top Pennsylvania state official is leaving her post after an administrative blunder by her office set back a years-long effort to amend the state constitution and give child sex abuse victims their day in court.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s office announced Monday that Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar would leave her post Friday, Feb. 5 after her agency failed to notify the public of a a proposed change to Pennsylvania’s constitution: an amendment that would give victims of child sexual abuse a two-year retroactive window to sue perpetrators in decades-old cases, which was on track to go before voters this year. 

Boockvar’s oversight and expected resignation were first reported by the investigative news outlet Spotlight PA on Monday morning. Wolf released a statement shortly before 12 p.m., confirming the Department of State’s mistake and announcing Boockvar’s departure.

Wolf also said he’d asked the state Inspector General to review the situation and help the department improve its process for handling constitutional amendments. The agency has already implemented “new controls” to ensure similar failings do not occur in the future, Wolf said.

Two lawmakers who sponsored the proposed amendment — and who both experienced childhood sexual abuse* — immediately decried the oversight.

“I feel like I got up and should still be sleeping,” Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, and a longtime advocate for the lawsuit window, told the Capital-Star, his voice flat. “That this is just a joke, a bad joke.”

Occasionally pausing to collect himself, Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair, likewise expressed shock at Boockvar’s “incompetence.”

“We were so close to making history in Pennsylvania, now we’re going to make history in such an ugly painful inconsolable way,” Gregory told the Capital-Star.

Lawmakers must approve a proposed constitutional amendment in two consecutive legislative sessions before it can go to voters in a referendum. The Department of State must advertise the proposed change in newspapers each time it is approved, Spotlight PA reported.

The General Assembly passed the proposed amendment in November 2019. But Boockvar’s agency didn’t advertise it as required. 

The apparent oversight sets the clock back on the entire amendment process. Now, the earliest that could happen is 2023.

Boockvar said on Twitter Monday that she hadn’t been aware of the administrative oversight, but accepted responsibility for it nonetheless.

Boockvar’s resignation comes after GOP leaders spent the latter half of 2020 slamming her for her role running Pennsylvania’s elections.

They argued she issued confusing, last-minute guidance to counties as they implemented Pennsylvania’s new vote by mail law, and accused her in federal court filings of using her office to bring about Democratic victories on Nov. 3.

Those leaders were swift to condemn Boockvar and the Wolf administration on Monday, and pledged to hold hearings to investigate how her agency failed in its constitutional duty to alert the public of the proposed amendment. 

Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, said Senate Republican leaders “were vilified and dragged through the mud for months” after they blocked legislation for clergy abuse survivors in 2018.

“Now, as we see Secretary Boockvar fail to do even the simplest and most basic task to help Pennsylvanians who have been victimized, we see exactly how little this administration actually cared,” Corman added. “It was never about people; it was always just about politics.”

Others responded with disbelief over the Department of State’s missteps. 

“To attempt to call this a mistake is to mischaracterize the gravity of the offense,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, said.  “Few Pennsylvanians are going to settle for any claim of isolated incompetence either. This warrants investigation by law enforcement and scrutiny through legislative hearings. There are many of us who want to know how and when this was uncovered, in addition to why it happened.”

The now-torpedoed amendment originated in 2019 with support from ex-Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, following years of activism by victims of clergy sex abuse in Pennsylvania. 

Pennsylvania’s current statute of limitations allows victims of child sex crimes to pursue civil suits until they turn 30. But a 2018 grand jury report detailing clergy abuse and cover up in Pennsylvania’s Catholic dioceses recommended implementing a retroactive window to let them pursue justice in decades-old abuse cases.

Scarnati said such a measure would be unconstitutional and blocked the measure when it came to the Senate in 2018. 

He said a constitutional amendment would preempt court challenges. But the tactic never had the support of clergy abuse victims, who said the lengthy referendum process deferred justice.

As news of the Department of State’s administrative lapse came to light, victim advocates said the time was right to again pursue their original goal — a window for lawsuits implemented legislatively, through a bill passed by the General Assembly.

“[Lawmakers] need to pass the window now,” Jennifer Storm, the former state victim advocate, said Monday, as she prepared for a Zoom call to discuss the news with abuse survivors. “You can’t with any good conscience make survivors wait until 2023.”

Senate Democratic lawmakers floated such a bill in a memo released within minutes of Wolf confirming the error. Wolf also backed a legislative change in the statement he issued Monday.

The odds of such a bill passing are unclear. While it snarled the General Assembly when Scarnati was in office, some current key leaders, including House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, have also opposed similar legislation in the past.

Cutler’s spokesperson, Mike Straub, told the Capital-Star that the House did not have a position yet on such a bill.

“We will see all the options that come out of this,” Straub said. 

House Democrats, meanwhile, suggested using an emergency power in the state constitution to fast-track an amendment to voters this year. Such a measure requires two-thirds approval in both chambers to reach voters, who could then approve the amendment as soon as a month after passage.

Rozzi, a Democrat, agreed that the General Assembly should quickly implement a window by statute instead of waiting for another 24 months. 

He and Gregory told victims to stay strong, and that they remained “resolute” in seeing a window through to the finish.

“Even though we are in a situation where we can shed many tears, we still have to forge ahead and come to an answer that will make this situation right,” Rozzi said.

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.

Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.