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State lawmakers consider fast-track plan for abuse lawsuit window

If both chambers approve of the emergency amendment, it could appear on the May 18 ballot

  • Mark Scolforo/The Associated Press
  • Marc Levy/The Associated Press
FILE PHOTO: Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, right, shakes hands with Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, after signing legislation into law at Muhlenberg High School in Reading, Pa., Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019. Wolf approved legislation Tuesday to give future victims of child sexual abuse more time to file lawsuits and to end time limits for police to file criminal charges.

Matt Rourke / AP Photo

FILE PHOTO: Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, right, shakes hands with Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, after signing legislation into law at Muhlenberg High School in Reading, Pa., Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019. Wolf approved legislation Tuesday to give future victims of child sexual abuse more time to file lawsuits and to end time limits for police to file criminal charges.

(Harrisburg) — A bid to amend the Pennsylvania Constitution to give victims of child sexual abuse a new legal window to sue over otherwise time-barred allegations got new life Thursday, days after the disclosure of a paperwork error threw it into disarray.

Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, told colleagues during a state House session that Republican leaders in both chambers were working with him and he hoped to get the proposed amendment on the spring primary ballot through a rarely used emergency process allowed in the constitution.

“We’ll be able to pass a standalone quickly and get this on the May ballot as originally intended,” Rozzi said.

Rozzi, a prime backer of the amendment who has told of his rape by a priest when he was 13, said the top-ranking senator in the GOP-majority Senate, President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, supports an emergency amendment process. Corman and other top Senate Republicans were noncommittal or silent Thursday.

“As always, we look forward to reviewing any plan the House is able to pass over to the Senate and that includes an emergency constitutional amendment,” Corman spokesperson Jenn Kocher said.

Emma Lee / WHYY

Attorney Jeff Anderson announces a suit against the Pennsylvania’s eight Catholic dioceses on behalf of victims of clergy child sexual abuse. He is joined by victim Daniel Hillanbrand and Hillanbrand’s wife, Donna.

House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, said in floor remarks that his caucus will work with Rozzi and other backers to get the emergency amendment through the chamber.

The proposed constitutional amendment would give now-adult victims of childhood sexual abuse a two-year reprieve — a so-called window — from time limits in state law that otherwise bar them from suing perpetrators or institutions that may have covered up abuse.

The drive to amend the constitution has been fueled by investigations into child sexual abuse allegations inside Pennsylvania’s Roman Catholic dioceses. But many victims lost their right to sue under Pennsylvania law when they turned 18, 20 or 30, depending on what the law was when they were abused.

With the Harrisburg Diocese and the Boy Scouts of America already in bankruptcy court, time is of the essence for thousands of people in Pennsylvania who were sexually abused as children, a lawyer for victims said.

Ben Andreozzi, a lawyer who represents hundreds of victims of sexual abuse, said Pennsylvania victims who filed a claim in those two bankruptcy cases will be paid a fraction of what they might otherwise receive if the state does not restore their right to sue before those cases wrap up.

“Those victims are literally at the mercy of the Pennsylvania Legislature,” Andreozzi said.

Voters approved adding the emergency amendment process to the constitution in 1967. It was used three times, between 1972 and 1977, according to the Department of State.

The provision is designed to be used “in the event a major emergency threatens or is about to threaten the Commonwealth and if the safety or welfare of the Commonwealth requires prompt amendment,” it says.

The three emergency amendments — in 1972, 1975 and 1977 — were all enacted after the state was struck by flooding or storms, including Hurricane Agnes in 1972.

In each amendment, the provision gave the state Legislature the power to enact laws to provide direct financial assistance to people and private businesses, institutions and organizations to “alleviate the danger, damage, suffering or hardship.”

Marc Levy / AP Photo

Survivors of child sexual abuse hug in the Pennsylvania Capitol while awaiting legislation to respond to a landmark state grand jury report on child sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018 in Harrisburg, Pa.

An emergency amendment requires both chambers to support it with a two-thirds approval vote. That needs to happen at least 30 days before the May 18 primary to appear on the ballot as a referendum.

“We have to find a remedy because these victims’ constitutional rights have been violated and we need to fix this problem,” Rozzi told colleagues.

The proposed amendment had been on track to appear on the May 18 statewide ballot.

But Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration disclosed Monday that the Department of State had failed to advertise the amendment during the 2019-20 legislative session, as required, when the amendment received the first of two rounds of approval in the House and Senate.

That threatens to set back the process by two years, until at least 2023.

Victims have tried for two decades to win back their power to sue, and Democrats have long preferred to restore that right by changing state law.

In 2018, Senate Republicans again blocked passage of such a measure, saying it would be unconstitutional. But they agreed to an alternative, to allow the two-year window to go through the multiyear constitutional amendment process to get to the ballot.

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