Gov. Tom Wolf speaks at a press conference on Monday, September 24, 2018, at the Capitol in Harrisburg. (Commonwealth Media Services)
Lawmakers in the Republican-controlled General Assembly have agreed to prioritize a constitutional amendment that would open a two-year window so victims of decades-old sexual abuse can sue their abusers and the institutions that covered up the crimes, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf announced Wednesday.
“After speaking directly with legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle, I’m pleased that they have committed to prioritize second passage of a constitutional amendment early next session,” Wolf said in a written statement released Wednesday night. “I am grateful for this agreement so that survivors can seek a path forward toward justice.”
Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair, reintroduced the proposed constitutional change after the Wolf administration’s advertising failure to restart the amendment process, which requires amendments to pass both chambers in two consecutive sessions.
However, a bill proposed by Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, would open the window legislatively. That proposal, likely a faster approach, was preferred by advocates and Wolf following the department’s error.
Both lawmakers are victims of child sexual abuse.
Rozzi’s bill stalled in the upper chamber, with Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, who controls 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. Attorney General Josh Shapiro, now the Democratic nominee for governor, 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.
Wolf, who leaves office in January 2023, said earlier this year that he would call a special session to push lawmakers to pass a statutory window through legislation. But on Wednesday, the outgoing governor, shifting his stance to align with Ward, said the constitutional amendment process is the “clearest path forward.”
“As we approach the two-year mark of victims having to wait again to pass this constitutional amendment, I am pleased that this legislation has not been forgotten by my colleagues in leadership,” Gregory said. “For me, the victims waiting two more years haven’t been forgotten for one day. The commitment to get it on the ballot next spring is a must.”
If the proposed constitutional change reaches and is approved by voters, victims will have two years to sue over the alleged crime, regardless of how long ago it happened.
Ward and House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, expressed their commitment to prioritizing the proposed constitutional amendment in the next legislative session, which begins in January 2023.
Benninghoff said House GOP leadership “will once again remind our caucus of the unique circumstances that lead to the fourth consideration of this constitutional amendment and the need to continue to lead on an issue so important to many victims and families across Pennsylvania.”
“Victims and survivors alike deserve their day in court, and they certainly deserve to know the truth, whether it is about their perpetrator or the institution that aided and abetted these heinous crimes,” Rozzi said. “There must be accountability for the reprehensible murder of each child’s soul.”
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