House sponsors hope derailed sex abuse survivor rights amendment will get back on track

(Harrisburg) — A proposal to give childhood sexual abuse survivors in Pennsylvania two more years to sue after the statute of limitations has expired is getting another chance in the state legislature.

The measure would have amended the commonwealth’s Constitution, but its years-long approval process was set to start over when the Department of State revealed this week it failed to advertise the amendment last year, as required by the Constitution.

Pa. Republican lawmakers and the U.S. Capitol attack

As part of WITF’s commitment to standing with facts, and because the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was an attempt to overthrow representative democracy in America, we are marking elected officials’ connections to the insurrection. Read more about this commitment.

County, state and federal judges and public officials of both political parties, and election experts, have concluded the 2020 election was free and fair. Pennsylvania legally certified its electoral votes Dec. 14, and multiple courts dismissed election-challenge cases for reasons including lack of evidence and lack of standing to sue. But Rep. Doyle Heffley of Carbon County and Rep. Paul Schemel of Franklin County were among the Republican state legislators who supported Donald Trump’s 2020 election-fraud lie by signing a letter urging members of Congress to object to Pennsylvania’s electoral votes going to Joe Biden. That lie led to the attack on the Capitol.

Heffley has defended his action. Schemel now says voters can trust the state’s electoral system, but he does not disavow the claims made in the letter.

Under Pa. law, constitutional amendments need to be approved twice in each chamber in two consecutive sessions before heading to voters, which takes at least two years to accomplish.

The snafu prompted bipartisan criticism and the resignation of Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, who officially stepped down Friday.

But Republican House Leader Kerry Benninghoff and Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton said they’ll now try to push it through as an emergency amendment, which only needs a single two-thirds majority vote in both chambers to come before voters.

Rep. Jim Gregory (R-Blair County), one of the measure’s sponsors, said it’s one of the only ways to get it back on track. Gregory said he is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse himself.

“We are trying to fix that mistake by someone else, and in doing so we’re trying to make sure that we don’t make any mistakes and that we do it right,” Gregory said.

Rep. Mark Rozzi (D-Berks County) said he’s glad House leadership found a way to move forward. Rozzi survived sexual abuse by a Roman Catholic priest when he was a teenager.

“It’s just another way for us to put pressure on the Assembly, both the House and Senate, to move something forward, to get something done, since this colossal disappointment by the Secretary of State,” he said.

The commonwealth’s constitution states two-thirds of lawmakers in both chambers must approve any emergency constitutional amendment, as long as “a major emergency threatens or is about to threaten the Commonwealth and if the safety or welfare of the Commonwealth requires prompt amendment.”

Similar to the normal amendment approval process, the secretary of state would then have to advertise the emergency measure in two newspapers in each county. But as long as the process is complete by mid-April, voters could decide whether to give childhood sexual abuse victims more court access as early as the May 18 primary.

Rep. Rozzi said he’s not worried about any potential legal challenges that could arise if the legislature fully pursues the emergency amendment option.

“Pick your poison: either way, the Catholic Church is going to oppose it,” Rozzi said. “We’re not going away. We’re not going to wait two years.”

Senate President Jake Corman (R-Centre County) said he’s waiting to see what the House sends to that chamber before taking a position on the effort to re-start the amendment process.

“To date, we have not committed to any specific legislative strategy, but are committed to supporting the victims who were impacted by the Department’s extreme carelessness,” said Corman (R-Centre County) spokeswoman Jenn Kocher.

Rep. Gregory acknowledged the emergency amendment process is not foolproof, but said he’s encouraged by the “sum of emotion” that’s led House leadership to give it a try.

“I’ve learned in the last three days to not get my hopes up too high, but I do believe that we have a path and we’ll see where it leads us,” he said.

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