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Emergency Constitutional Amendment For Sexual Abuse Survivors Blocked in Pennsylvania

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(The Center Square) – The effort to extend the litigation window for survivors of child sexual abuse suffered a crushing blow this week after lawmakers blocked an emergency constitutional amendment necessary to get the measure on the ballot in May.

Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Greensburg, said Monday her caucus concluded that elevating the amendment to emergency status – an option only used sparingly in the past to address problems arising from natural disasters – obfuscates the issue from public review and leaves it vulnerable to legal challenges that could further delay justice for victims.

“The Wolf administration dropped the ball and failed to initiate the public review process, which gives public notice by clearly explaining the ballot question,” Ward said. “After careful consideration, it has been determined … that this matter does not meet the emergency status criteria and does not correct the failure by the Wolf administration, as it still does not properly vet this matter with the public.” 

Image courtesy of the Pennsylvania Senate Republican Caucus

Hope for swift action on the issue began fading last week as House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, backed away from prior commitments to move an emergency proposal after the Department of State admitted to a clerical error in February that derailed the original amendment.

Constitutional amendments must pass in the General Assembly in two consecutive sessions before appearing on the ballot as a voter referendum. The Legislature was poised to approve this particular measure for the second time last month, more than two years after a statewide grand jury report that detailed claims of sexual abuse against children in the Catholic Church recommended reopening a civil litigation window so that survivors could sue abusers.

The Department of State must advertise the proposed amendment each time it passes the Legislature. But that never happened after its first approval in 2019.

The oversight forced the resignation of Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar and launched an investigation from the Inspector General’s Office. It also meant that without an emergency intervention, the Legislature must start the process over, delaying the referendum until 2023 at the earliest.

“The strongest legal position to bring closure to this matter and allow all victims (public and private) of childhood sexual abuse to face their abusers is via constitutional amendment,” Ward said. “The dereliction of duty by the Wolf administration has forced the Pennsylvania Senate to reset the clock on the constitutional amendment.”

House Democratic leadership released a statement late Monday criticizing Republicans for politicizing the issue and pointing fingers instead of helping victims.

“Let us be clear, this legislation was already agreed to in multiple sessions and passed multiple times by both the House and the Senate,” Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, and the rest of the leadership team said. “But today, rather than help the victims of childhood sexual abuse, Republicans decided to do nothing but point fingers in the name of political games.”

The team accused Benninghoff of “lying” about his intentions to move the amendment and the support for it in both chambers.

“They can’t hide that their actions this week broke a public promise made to the survivors of childhood sexual abuse,” she said. “We’ve heard countless heartbreaking stories from these survivors, including from our own colleagues. We only wish that Republicans hadn’t pulled the rug out from underneath these efforts for justice at the last possible moment and further delayed this reckoning.”

Jason Gottesman, Benninghoff’s spokesperson, said the caucus has propelled this issue forward and that despite the setback, “all other options remain on the table.”

“If it were not for the Pennsylvania Department of State’s complete incompetence in fulfilling the advertising portion of the constitutional amendment process, voters would have the ability to decide whether or not to provide these victims the justice they have sought after for so long,” he said.

He said Benninghoff’s commitment “was to work with the sponsors to get this done despite the fact that it was nobody’s fault in the House that we are in this unprecedented position in the first place.”

And, he said, the measure was poised for House passage, until it became clear the Senate did not agree.

“Unfortunately, the Senate’s announced position yesterday showed any attempt to advance the measure would merely provide false hope to those who have already suffered so much,” he said.

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