HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Victims of child sexual abuse might have to wait two years or more to pursue legal claims because of a major bureaucratic bungle that prompted angry denunciations across the political spectrum and the resignation of a top Pennsylvania state official.
The Wolf administration disclosed Monday that a proposed state constitutional amendment allowing lawsuits over decades old claims wasn’t advertised as required and so cannot appear on the ballot this spring. As a result, no statewide referendum to add it to the state constitution may be possible before 2023.
The Department of State is calling it “simple human error” and Gov. Tom Wolf is apologizing.
Governor Tom Wolf is announcing changes at the Department of State after it failed to advertise a proposed constitutional amendment that would extend retroactively the timeline for victims to file civil actions against their abusers. Because of the error, the process to amend the constitution must now start from the beginning, unless the General Assembly pursues this initiative through the bill process.
Effective Feb. 5, Kathy Boockvar is leaving the administration following three years with the department, including two years as secretary of the commonwealth. The department is also immediately instituting new controls, including additional tracking and notifications of constitutional amendments, to ensure similar failings do not occur in the future. The governor has asked the Pennsylvania Office of State Inspector General to review the situation and make additional recommendations to improve the department’s process for handling constitutional amendments.
“This change at the Department of State has nothing to do with the administration of the 2020 election, which was fair and accurate,” said Gov. Wolf. “The delay caused by this human error will be heartbreaking for thousands of survivors of childhood sexual assault, advocates and legislators, and I join the Department of State in apologizing to you. I share your anger and frustration that this happened, and I stand with you in your fight for justice.
“The progress that you have made through your bravery and activism is remarkable, and I urge all of the advocates, including Sen. Lisa Baker, Rep. Jim Gregory, Rep. Mark Rozzi, Attorney General Josh Shapiro and all others, to keep up this fight. Your voices still must be heard.”
The proposed amendment, which is in response to the child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, first passed the legislature as House Bill 963 in November 2019. The Department of State was constitutionally required to advertise the wording of the proposed constitutional amendment in two newspapers in every county, in each of the three months before the next general election when members of the General Assembly are elected. That advertising did not occur before the 2020 general election.
Proposed constitutional amendments must pass in two consecutive sessions of the state legislature, after which the proposal is put to the voters in a statewide referendum. The General Assembly was set to begin the process for second passage of the amendment this week. In preparing for the potential passage, DOS staff noticed late last week that the amendment was not previously advertised.
The governor would commit to working with the General Assembly to reach a legislative resolution, if the General Assembly wants to pursue a bill creating a civil “window” for victims to file child sexual abuse claims.
The governor thanked Boockvar for taking responsibility for the department’s error and praised her leadership over the past three years to provide a fair election last year under tremendously challenging circumstances.
“I’m extremely proud of what we’ve accomplished for the people of Pennsylvania,” said Secretary Boockvar. “I’ve always believed that accountability and leadership must be a cornerstone of public service. While I only became aware of the mistake last week, and immediately took steps to alert the administration to the error, I accept responsibility on behalf of the department.”
Accomplishments during Boockvar’s service include:
- Implementation of Act 77, the most sweeping election law reforms in over 80 years, which, for the first time, allowed all Pennsylvanians to vote by mail and to vote early;
- A free, fair, and secure 2020 election with transparency and unparalleled voter registration and turnout, despite a pandemic;
- Certification and deployment of new voting systems meeting the highest standards of security and accessibility, including voter-verifiable paper ballots, in every county in the state;
- Pioneering of new election security and integrity measures such as piloting risk-limiting audits; and
- Rapid development of several licensure waivers, allowing health care and other professionals and facilities to respond to the COVID-19 disaster declaration.
“Thanks in part to Kathy’s leadership, Pennsylvania voters either cast ballots using modern voting machines or securely voted by mail for the first time,” said Gov. Wolf. “It is through her commitment to helping the counties administer a fair election that we can all have confidence in the accuracy and integrity of the recent election results.”
The governor will appoint Veronica Degraffenreid to serve as acting secretary of the commonwealth. Degraffenreid was the department’s special advisor on election modernization. She has over 12 years of experience in election administration and was the former Director of Election Operations for the North Carolina State Board of Elections. Her bio is online.