A Pa. Dept. of State Error Means Some Sex-abuse Victims Will Again Have to Wait for Justice

Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA

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HARRISBURG— Pennsylvania’s top election official will resign after her agency made a mistake that will delay a statewide vote on whether survivors of decades-old sexual abuse should be able to sue the perpetrators and institutions that covered up the crimes.

Secretary Kathy Boockvar, who oversaw a tense and difficult presidential election in the battleground state, will resign Feb. 5, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Monday. Spotlight PA first reported the news.

Kathy Boockvar has led the Department of State since 2019, and oversaw a tense and difficult presidential election in a battleground state last year. TIM TAI / Philadelphia Inquirer

The resignation follows the discovery that the Department of State did not advertise, as required, a long-sought amendment to the state constitution that would open a two-year window for litigation by survivors of child sexual abuse who have aged out of the statute of limitations.

The error means that Pennsylvanians won’t be able to vote on such a change until spring 2023 at the earliest — a blow to survivors who have fought for a window for nearly two decades.

“This change at the Department of State has nothing to do with the administration of the 2020 election, which was fair and accurate,” Wolf said. “The delay caused by this human error will be heartbreaking for thousands of survivors of childhood sexual assault, advocates, and legislators, and I join the Department of State in apologizing to you. I share your anger and frustration that this happened, and I stand with you in your fight for justice.”

The two-year window was a key recommendation in a blistering 2018 report by a statewide grand jury that investigated the coverup of decades of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. It is backed by the state’s community of survivors, who three years ago held vigils and other events in the Capitol during tense negotiations in the legislature about the best way to handle the matter.

Boockvar, who was appointed to the $145,244-a-year position in 2019, said in a statement that she only learned of the error last week and immediately notified Wolf’s office. Still, she believed accepting responsibility was the right thing to do.

“I’ve always believed that accountability and leadership must be a cornerstone of public service,” she said.

Jennifer Storm, the state’s onetime victim advocate who championed the two-year window alongside survivors, called the mistake “devastating.”

“To now say that this is going to get pushed back to 2023 is so offensive … to survivors, who have waited long enough for this change,” Storm said.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, whose office spearheaded the investigation that led to the 2018 grand jury report, said he spent the morning on a Zoom call with survivors, who were in turn confused, confounded, and upset.

Under state law, changes to the Pennsylvania Constitution require that a proposal be approved by the legislature in two consecutive sessions. After that, the proposed change appears on the ballot for voters to decide.

The two-year window in the statute of limitations was first approved in the legislature’s 2019-20 session. It was approved again last month by the House of Representatives and is expected to soon pass the Senate. The goal was to place the question on the spring primary ballot.

Before a question can appear on the ballot, however, Boockvar’s agency is required to advertise the change both times it is approved. Agency officials discovered last week that the Department of State, which oversees elections, did not advertise the proposed ballot question when it was approved in the 2019-20 session. That means the process has to begin anew.

Shapiro said he had been in contact with legislative leaders about a solution, which he believes should be to pass the measure through the normal bill process rather than through a constitutional amendment.

“I need this to be right for these people,” Shapiro said of survivors. “They have suffered so much, and they deserve so much better than what some in their state government have done to them.”

Wolf and other Democrats on Monday also urged Republican leaders to reconsider the approach. In the past, the top Republican in the Senate, Joe Scarnati of Jefferson County, had blocked making the change through a bill, which he believed was unconstitutional. Scarnati, however, did not run for another legislative term, and the Senate now has new GOP leaders

The governor stressed that Boockvar’s decision to resign her position had nothing to do with how she led the department during last year’s election. Boockvar and Wolf were targets of intense criticism by Republicans and others about how they administered mail-in voting during a pandemic. After the election, they defended the state against unfounded conspiracy theories that there was widespread fraud.

“Thanks in part to Kathy’s leadership, Pennsylvania voters either cast ballots using modern voting machines or securely voted by mail for the first time,” Wolf said. “It is through her commitment to helping the counties administer a fair election that we can all have confidence in the accuracy and integrity of the recent election results.”

This story will be updated.

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