Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania this week chose not to present a proposed constitutional amendment to voters via an emergency process. The amendment would have opened a two-year window during which victims of child sexual abuse could file lawsuits, even if the statute of limitations had run out.
The administration of Gov. Tom Wolf disclosed on Feb.1 that it had failed to arrange mandatory public advertisements for the proposed amendment, which meant the amendment could only appear before voters in May if lawmakers employed an emergency process. Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar resigned because of the error.
On March 22, Republican lawmakers chose to start the process over rather than give the measure emergency support. As a result, a referendum on the proposed amendment cannot happen before 2023.
The amendment, if approved by Pennsylvania voters, would change the state constitution to create a two-year revival window in which victims can file civil charges no matter when the alleged abuse occurred.
Other states, such as New York, have already implemented “windows” of this kind. Under current Pennsylvania law, many victims of historical sexual abuse lost their ability to sue when they turned 18.
The proposed amendment includes a provision to remove the “sovereign immunity” defense, which shields public and government institutions— including public schools— from civil lawsuits for child sexual abuse. This provision would effectively make the amendment apply equally to both public and private institutions.
The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and other groups had previously voiced concerns about whether abuse victims would have the equal ability to sue public institutions, which are often protected under sovereign immunity.
The Pennsylvania Grand Jury report, released during August 2018, identified more than 1,000 alleged victims of 300 credibly accused priests from 1947 to 2017 across six Pennsylvania dioceses.
The grand jury report recommended creating a retroactive two-year legal window allowing victims of child sex abuse to sue even if the statute of limitations has expired. The legal effort to create such a window in Pennsylvania has been ongoing since then.
Constitutional amendments in Pennsylvania must pass both chambers in two successive two-year legislative sessions before going before voters in a statewide referendum for final approval, the AP reported.
Democratic state Rep. Mark Rozzi, who says he was abused by a priest at age 13, is one of the proposed amendment’s main backers. He told the AP he is working on a plan to create the two-year window through regular legislation rather than via amendment.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) last year extended the one-year window for Child Victims Act lawsuits until August 14, 2021. Over 400 lawsuits were filed in New York state on the first day of the one-year window.
New Jersey opened a two-year window for victims Dec. 1, 2019. After that window closes, a new law extended the statute of limitations on reporting childhood abuse from 20 years of age to 55.
California’s three-year “look back” window opened Jan. 1, 2020. Once the window has closed, victims will be able to come forward with childhood abuse cases up until the age of 40, instead of the previous limit of 26 years of age.
Arizona, Montana, Hawaii, Vermont, and North Carolina, and the District of Columbia have also opened windows. Most states have temporary look back windows, though Vermont’s window will never expire, allowing anyone to come forward with an allegation of childhood sexual abuse at any time.