Legislative Reform in Pennsylvania: How an “administrative error” derailed a law that would have given civil justice to thousands

Earlier this month, headlines about how an “administrative error” derailed legislative reform for survivors of child sexual abuse in Pennsylvania dominated news feeds and television screens. What was this administrative error and what are the next steps for survivors of child sexual abuse in Pennsylvania?

Let’s go back to the beginning.

In 2018, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro released a scathing statewide grand jury report about child sexual abuse in six of the state’s eight Catholic dioceses. The report found that approximately 300 Catholic priests sexually abused thousands of children across the state while under the protection of the Catholic bishops. Because the crimes happened outside of the statute of limitations, however, there was little to nothing that survivors or law enforcement could do to hold perpetrators accountable.

International outrage was overwhelming and swift. In the state capitol, previously stalled legislative reforms took on new life. Lawmakers, encouraged by the recommendations of the grand jury to enact civil justice reforms, drafted legislation to implement a two-year civil window for time-barred survivors to bring claims.

As expected, the bill faced obstacles. Then-Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati stated that a retroactive civil window would violate the state constitution. As a result, the legislation stalled and never made it out of the Senate. In Pennsylvania, however, lawmakers can amend the constitution by drafting legislation that is approved in two consecutive legislative sessions. Once that goal is met, the amendment is sent to the voters in the next election.

Survivors and their supporters decided on a different tack. In 2019, a bipartisan group of Pennsylvania lawmakers put forward the necessary legislation for a constitutional amendment granting a civil window for survivors. The amendment bill passed in both the 2019 and 2020 legislative sessions, making the May 2021 primary election the opportunity to put the bill before the general public for a vote. Polling strongly indicated that the public overwhelmingly supported such legislation.

Then came the setback. In January, legislators discovered that due to an “administrative error,” the proposed legislation was ineligible for the May ballot. Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, failed to advertise the proposed amendment in the state’s designated media outlets, as required by law. Other proposed changes to the Pennsylvania constitution were appropriately advertised.

As a result, Boockvar resigned. However, the damage was done. Lawmakers, who battled for three years to pass window legislation, were left scrambling for alternatives.

There are three possible options:

  1. Passing emergency legislation that would permit the original amendment to go on the May ballot. That legislation must be passed by mid-April. According to legislators, the chances of such emergency legislation being proposed and passed are slim.
  2. Re-drafting and passing traditional civil window legislation. Unfortunately, Republican lawmakers say that voting for such a measure, in possible violation of the state constitution, goes against their oath of office.
  3. Re-do of the constitutional amendment process. This, unfortunately, is most likely. This requires two additional years of consecutive passage before voters have their opportunity to weigh in. That makes 2023 the earliest opportunity for survivors.

Survivors are rightfully angry, disappointed and discouraged by these developments. Fortunately, every Pennsylvania survivor has the right to demand that their legislators move quickly to enact window legislation to expose predators who may still be in Pennsylvania’s communities. We encourage everyone to stay strong, get help and support if they need it, and to take action to ensure that children are safer and institutions and wrong-doers are held accountable.