In January 2021, Pennsylvania lawmakers introduced legislation to amend the state’s constitution. If passed, this amendment would have opened a two-year “look back” window for childhood sexual abuse survivors. This retroactive window would have allowed survivors with expired cases to seek legal action. Unfortunately, an administrative error has delayed the passing of this bill for at least two years.
In 2020, the Pennsylvania Department of State failed to advertise the proposed amendment. Under state law, this is a requirement to pass a constitutional amendment. Thus, child sexual abuse survivors in the state of Pennsylvania will have to wait for a chance at legal justice. In response to the error, Kathy Boockvar, the Pennsylvania Secretary of State, will resign from her position.
Why Pennsylvania Is Considering A “Look Back” Window
In 2018, a Pennsylvania grand jury report reviewed claims of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. The abuse spanned seven decades. The report identified more than 300 abusive clergy members and more than 1,000 victims.
Following this report, state lawmakers looked to expand the rights of child sexual abuse survivors. This “look back” window legislation is the latest attempt to seek justice for these survivors.
If passed, this two-year window would have temporarily revived old cases of child sexual abuse. Currently, the state’s statute of limitations prevents many adult survivors from filing claims.
A statute of limitations (SOL) is a legal deadline. SOLs vary based on the jurisdiction, the crime and the intended legal action (criminal charges versus a civil claim).
The window also would have allowed survivors to file lawsuits against Catholic dioceses that played a role in covering up abuse.
State Requirements To Pass A Constitutional Amendment
In order to change the Pennsylvania state’s constitution, several things have to happen.
First, the amendment has to be passed by both branches of their legislature. The House of Representatives and Senate must pass the amendment in two consecutive legislative sessions.
During the two sessions, the Pennsylvania Department of State must advertise the proposed constitutional amendment. This advertisement must run in two newspapers in every county. Then, Pennsylvania voters must vote in favor of the amendment law.
Department Of State Fails To Advertise Amendment
In the 2019–2020 legislative session, the measures for the “look back” window were passed by both state chambers. In January 2021, the House of Representatives passed the measures, and the legislation was sent to the Senate for a vote.
If the Senate had passed the most recent measures, the proposed amendment would have gone to a referendum vote on Pennsylvania ballots as early as May 2021.
However, the Department of State failed to complete the advertising requirement. Because of this mistake, the amendment process must start over. Now, Pennsylvania citizens won’t be able to vote on the measures until 2023. The amendment will once again have to pass in the house and senate during two consecutive sessions.
The Pennsylvania Secretary of State, Kathy Boockvar, recently announced her resignation over the error.
How The Delay Impacts Survivors
Victim advocates and lawmakers have criticized the mistake made by the Department of State. Many are looking at other legislative avenues to pass the two-year “look back” window.
“This conduct at the Department of State was truly shameful and these survivors deserve better. I can tell you, I’ve had some productive conversations with the governor and legislative leaders about trying to remedy this error and trying to get the victims in a position where we can bring justice as quickly and humanly possible.”
If lawmakers continue in their efforts to pass a constitutional amendment, survivors would have to wait until 2023 to see if Pennsylvania voters would support the amendment.
But, some advocates are calling on state lawmakers to pass the window through statutory changes as opposed to a constitutional amendment. This process would be quicker. But, some Republican lawmakers believe passing the window using regular legislation is unconstitutional.
“The reason the legislature did a proposed constitutional amendment instead of a statutory change to begin with is that the General Assembly cannot retroactively eliminate an accrued defense without violating the remedies clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution. That hasn’t changed. The secretary’s dereliction of duty has put us back to square one.”
Supporters of the “look back” window will continue to fight for legislative changes. Time will tell how state lawmakers will choose to move forward from this setback.
Couloumbis, A. (2021, February 1). A Pa. Dept. of State error means some sex-abuse victims will again have to wait for justice. The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Couloumbis, A., Fernandez, C. (2021, February 1). There’s another path for survivors of clergy sex abuse to get justice. It faces an uphill climb. Spotlight PA.
Earle, R., Deffenbaugh, G. (2021, February 2). PA Attorney General urges lawmakers to take action and support abuse survivors. WPXI.
Smith, P. (2021, February 2). After ballot blunder, some seek a bill on abuse lawsuits. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.