HARRISBURG, PA (WSKG) –– The state House is poised to approve an emergency constitutional amendment giving survivors of child sexual abuse another two years to sue if the statute of limitations on their cases has already expired.
A final vote could take place as early as next week, but time is running out to get the proposal before voters for the May primary.
Lawmakers must approve the measure by mid-April to get it on the ballot. Unless the House votes by Wednesday, the Senate may not have enough time to consider it, and abuse survivors would have to wait at least several years for the extended window to sue.
House Republicans cast doubt on what supporters thought was an agreed-upon proposal by adding changes on Wednesday, then promptly withdrawing them amid a hailstorm of Democratic criticism.
Rep. Mark Rozzi (D-Berks County), who is a survivor of abuse and a lead supporter of the measure, pleaded with his colleagues to push the effort over the finish line during a floor speech on Wednesday.
“We have an opportunity to deliver justice for those victims, who have waited years. At what point do we just stand up and do the right thing?” Rozzi asked.
Lawmakers seized on the idea of an emergency amendment after an administrative error at the Department of State disqualified an initial amendment proposal after a years-long approval process. Former Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar resigned over the matter last month.
In cases where “a major emergency threatens or is about to threaten the Commonwealth and if the safety or welfare of the Commonwealth requires prompt amendment” of its constitution, the legislature can send emergency amendments like this one to voters.
Two-thirds of lawmakers in both chambers must vote to approve an emergency amendment, and it must appear in two newspapers in every county at least a month before an election, in order to appear on the ballot.
Some, however, have said voting “yes” would be difficult for them because the amendment could be struck down in court. Rep. Jerry Knowles (R-Schuylkill County) is among those who think a court could rule that the amendment moved forward without a real emergency in place.
“If we think that this is an emergency, then my question would be why was it not an emergency last session when we began the whole process?” Knowles asked during a House Judiciary committee meeting this week. “I get concerned that we are doing exactly what we accuse the other two branches of government of [doing].”
Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff said House Republicans remain “committed” to the issue, but is not guaranteeing a vote next week. He said a possible court challenge is not enough of a reason to stall the effort.
“The courts can interpret things as they wish. We’ve seen them do things in very timely matters when they want to and I suspect that they could rule accordingly,” he said.
Benninghoff pushed back on Democratic criticism that accused him of “breaking a promise” in being hesitant to move forward on giving abuse survivors more legal access.
“It is our caucus that pushed this initiative through,” Benninghoff said. “It is our caucus that provided the majority of votes to get this done and I think we’ve showed time and time again that we are committed to this issue.”
Chief sponsor Rep. Jim Gregory (R-Blair County), who is a survivor of abuse, said he hopes lawmakers will remember sexual abuse is a “bipartisan crime” in choosing whether to vote on the proposal next week.
“Not until legislators stop worrying about who to blame and who gets credit and forgetting sexual abuse is a bipartisan crime, we won’t get this done,” Gregory wrote in a text.
Rozzi said he’s had to console other survivors who’ve lobbied him each time the proposal has hit a snag, and is hoping he doesn’t have to do it again.
“Victims through this entire process…have been used as a tool, and while victims have been suffering year after year, waiting for justice, [they have been] waiting for the people in these chambers to be just as angered and upset as we are,” Rozzi said.