Wolf may call special session to ‘open a window to justice’ for child sex assault victims to sue abusers

By Jan Murphy

Gov. Tom Wolf is threatening to turn up the heat on state lawmakers this summer to pass a bill that gives victims of child sexual abuse the opportunity to sue their abusers in court

Wolf announced Monday he will call them back to Harrisburg for a special session if they fail to send him a bill that opens a two-year retroactive window for these victims to file lawsuits outside of the statute of limitations as part of the state budget package in June.

“This needs to be the top priority,” Wolf said at a news conference in the Capitol Rotunda with victims of child sex abuse standing on the steps behind him.

In 2019, Wolf signed legislation overhauling the state’s child sex crime laws. Under the law, Pennsylvania abolished the statute of limitations on childhood sex abuse in criminal cases and extended the amount of time victims have to file civil actions against their abusers to age 55.

But the law didn’t address the civil statute of limitations to give victims a retroactive legal window to file lawsuits against their abuser after the statute of limitations expired.

Wolf said passing House Bill 951 that would provide a statutory window is important to hold all abusers accountable for their action.

This bill, which passed the House by 149-52 vote last April, has sat idle in the Senate since that chamber’s judiciary committee approved it by an 11-3 vote.

Around the same time, both chambers passed House Bill 14 which would achieve the same goal of providing a two-year window for time-barred claims from child sex abuse victims but do it by the lengthier process of amending the state constitution. Constitutional changes require passage by both chambers of the Legislature in two consecutive legislative sessions before it can go to the voters for ratification.

Wolf said going the legislative route “is the fastest path to justice for survivors” and if it is not included as part of the state budget package, he will go to Plan B.

“I will call a special session to bring the General Assembly back to Harrisburg and get this done. Because survivors deserve to have this issue resolved,” Wolf said.

While special sessions in Harrisburg may bring attention to an issue, there is no guarantee action will be taken.

But Marci Hamilton, founder and CEO of Child USA, which is a national advocate for lifting child sex abuse statute of limitations, considers this move by the governor the strongest one he can make on this issue.

Hamilton was among those who attended the press conference organized by Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks County, a victim of clergy sex abuse himself who has been a leading voice on this statute of limitations reform.

Rozzi said victims have been awaiting the opportunity for justice since the 2005 Philadelphia grand jury report on clergy sex abuse called for opening a look-back window. He pointed the finger of blame for the delay on Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland County, who has refused to let the bill come up for a Senate vote.

Ward has expressed empathy for the victims but has said the only way this can happen is through a constitutional change because questions remain about the constitutionality of opening a retroactive window on a single issue such as child sex abuse.

She has faulted the Wolf Administration’s blunder by the Department of State in failing to advertise the proposed constitutional amendment last year that prevented it from appearing on the primary ballot for voter ratification last spring. That setback caused the proposed constitutional amendment to start over through the amendment process.

Ward spokeswoman Erica Clayton Wright said the General Assembly is on track to have a second vote on the proposed constitutional amendment early next year clearing the way for voters to weigh in on it in the primary election of 2023.

“Attempts to elevate this matter to ‘special session’ status is a media play that further by-passes the public vetting process denying Pennsylvanians proper consideration of the proposed amendment,” Wright said.

“I understand Governor Wolf’s will to correct the mistake of his administration to initiate the public review process, but by-passing the proper process does not properly vet this matter with the public. More importantly, it does not give victims the justice they deserve. The strongest legal position for victims [public and private] of childhood sexual abuse to face their abusers is via constitutional amendment.”

But Hamilton said her organization fears that if a flaw is detected in a constitutional amendment, the only way to correct it is through a subsequent constitutional amendment. That would further delaying a window of justice for victims, she said.

Since the Philadelphia grand jury report about clergy sex abuse was issued, she said 22 jurisdictions have passed measures to give child sex abuse victims an opportunity to sue their abusers.

“Pennsylvania can keep falling behind,” Hamilton said. “With every other state and now an international statute of limitations task force, they [have] now become one of the worst states in the country and it’s just because lawmakers are sitting on their hands.”

Attorney General and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro also in attendance for the news conference, spoke directly to the victims who stood behind him.

He told them they deserve better not only from the institutions that turned a blind eye to their abuse but by the Department of State and its “shameful” failure to advertise the proposed constitution as well as the Senate for its failure to act on House Bill 951.

“One of the questions that I’m left with today is was their decision to fail to act an act of cowardice or are they simply complicit,” Shapiro said. “We are not going away. We will pass a window to justice here in Pennsylvania.”

Holding up a legal memorandum that he said was shared with Senate leaders stating a statutory window as provided through House Bill 951 would be constitutional, Shapiro said, “They ignored the legal advice. Their new excuse was that the Department of State failed. That shouldn’t be an excuse to not act. That shouldn’t be an excuse to ignore the stories, the truth of what happened to these children.”

Shaun Dougherty, himself a childhood victim of sexual abuse by a priest who is president of the national Survivors Network of those Abused by Priest, questioned Ward’s reluctance to allow House Bill 951 to come up for a vote.

“Does Pennsylvania have a representative democracy? Or is this really Kim Ward’s plutocracy funded by the deep pockets in the Catholic Church lobbyists,” Dougherty said.

He further was critical of Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, who has gone on record as favoring passing House Bill 951 to open a statutory window.

Dougherty said when Corman was majority leader, he blamed then-Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati for not letting the bill come to a vote. Now that Corman is president pro tempore, he said Corman says it’s Ward’s fault for not letting the bill come to the Senate floor for a vote.

“They both cannot be true,” Dougherty said. “Hiding behind a lie lacks integrity and exposes the weak leadership of a man who controls the Senate.”

Corman spokesman Jason Thompson called the criticism of Corman “empty rhetoric divorced from reality. When Senator Corman was Majority Leader, he advanced some of the most significant reforms to protect children in the state’s history, including implementing three of the four recommendations [that came out of a 2018 grand jury report on clergy sex abuse in six Catholic diocese in Pennsylvania]. This included eliminating the criminal statute of limitations for abusing children – so perpetrators of these terrible crimes can be held accountable.”

Dougherty called on the Senate to pass House bill 951 and let the Supreme Court decide its constitutionality. “The longer we wait the more innocent lives that are lost and I can tell you the laws that were passed in other states are producing results,” he said. “Kids are safer in those states than they are in Pennsylvania.”