Gov. Tom Wolf orders General Assembly back in session to change Constitution
Exiting Pennsylvania Democrat Gov. Tom Wolf was suddenly moved, Friday, to call for a special session of the General Assembly—House and Senate—for Monday, Jan. 9, to propose a constitutional amendment to retroactively extend the timeline for victims of childhood sexual abuse to file civil actions.
Wolf has had almost two years to work with the General Assembly on this issue after the Department of State failed to publicly advertise the proposed amendment would appear on a statewide ballot, as required by law. As a result of the failure to advertise, then-Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, who oversaw the state’s 2020 election, stepped down.
The lengthy process of changing the Pennsylvania Constitution works like this:
- Identical proposals to change the Constitution must pass the House and Senate in two consecutive legislative sessions. Each session is two years, so the process can take up to four years to get it through both houses two times.
- Advertise the proposed amendment to the public so they are aware of the changes and can see how it will be presented on the ballot.
- The measure goes on a statewide ballot and the public decides if the change should be made.
After a 2018 grand jury investigation into child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, the General Assembly agreed to a constitutional amendment that would have retroactively extended a timeline for victims to sue their abusers in civil court for financial damages. The rationale was that victims often wait years to disclose the abuse, coming forward after the statute of limitations for legal remedies has closed.
“In February 2021, we were gravely disappointed to learn that the Department of State had failed to advertise the proposed constitutional amendment,” Wolf wrote in his proclamation Friday. “At that time, I apologized profusely and committed to working with the General Assembly to reach a swift legislative resolution.”
Last session, the General Assembly passed House Bill 14 to restart the constitutional amendment process.
“It is now time for the General Assembly to act expeditiously and complete the constitutionally required second passage with the exact language contained in last sessions. How spill 14, to ensure that the voters have their say, and this May’s election,” Wolf said.
Wolf has asked the General Assembly to pass a joint resolution no later than Jan. 27, so the Department of State can meet the Constitution’s publication requirements.
“This very tight schedule can only be accomplished under the specific circumstances of a single, straightforward amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution, such as the one under consideration here,” Wolf said. He said he would not address the special session, so the General Assembly can focus on passing a joint resolution in time for publication deadline.
Grand Jury Report
The 900-page grand jury report on child sex abuse by Catholic priests in six Pennsylvania dioceses was written by then-attorney general and now Governor-elect Josh Shapiro. The report profiled more than 300 clergy members who allegedly sexually abused children. Many had died or retired, but the report showed how the Catholic Church passed problem priests from one church to another.
A powerful Catholic lobby in Harrisburg worked against this legislation to give victims more time to sue, as the church faced the potential of hundreds of lawsuits and high-dollar financial settlements.
Leading the charge for the legislation were Pennsylvania Rep. Mark Rozzi and Rep. Jim Gregory, who said they were victims of such abuse.
Rozzi was a Democrat until this week, when Gregory, a Republican, nominated him to be Pennsylvania’s Speaker of the House. Once he accepted the position, Rozzi declared he would act as an Independent.
Republican Leader Bryan Cutler issued a statement Friday on Wolf’s proclamation.
“It is understandable that Gov. Wolf would want to call for this special session as soon as possible given the election of Pennsylvania’s first Independent speaker of the House and the governor’s desire to make up the Department of State’s failures that led to justice being delayed to many survivors of child sexual abuse,” Cutler said in the statement.
“However, it is not in the best interest of the Commonwealth to do this work in special session, where we are required to only work on a single issue. Passing this Constitutional amendment was something we have done easily in the past and have already committed to running this session. We can do this work in regular session, while also addressing other urgent needs the people of Pennsylvania expect us to address in a timely manner,” he said.
“To do so, we must complete the work necessary to assemble as an effective body. We look forward to working with Speaker Mark Rozzi in earnest and finally see legitimate engagement from our Democratic counterparts so we can agree to a set of House rules, organize committees, and begin the work of this session.”