FILE - Pennsylvania Senate

The Senate chamber in the Pennsylvania State Capitol building in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

(The Center Square) – After a near-unanimous vote Tuesday, the process of passing a constitutional amendment that could open a two-year window for litigation against child sex abusers started over in Pennsylvania.

Despite the unified support for House Bill 14, lawmakers on the Senate floor shared frustration and sorrow that Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Greensburg, opted against an emergency amendment that would have put the proposal before voters during the May 18 primary.

“I simply cannot, cannot, cannot understand it,” said Sen. John Kane, D-Delaware, as he detailed his own experience with sexual advances from Catholic priests as a teenager. “We are starting this process over. We are making survivors wait even longer for that justice.”

Constitutional amendments must pass in two consecutive sessions before appearing on the ballot as a referendum. The House passed HB14 in January for the second time, teeing it up for Senate approval in February.

The first time the proposal earned approval by both chambers was in 2019, shortly after a statewide grand jury investigation into allegations of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church recommended that the General Assembly loosen the statute of limitations for survivors seeking their day in court.

But just as the Senate prepared to vote the measure for a second time, the Department of State revealed that it forgot to advertise the amendment the first time it passed two years earlier. The clerical error forced the resignation of Secretary Kathy Boockvar and set the entire effort back until 2023, at the earliest.

House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, then committed to using an emergency constitutional amendment to get the measure back on track. The deadline for that action is Wednesday.

But Ward said on Monday that “a majority” of the Senate Republican Caucus determined issue didn’t constitute proper use of an emergency amendment. Besides, she said, the Legislature shouldn’t bend laws just to fix the department’s mistake, no matter how grave, and doing so could trigger legal action.

“The dereliction of duty by the Wolf administration has forced the Pennsylvania Senate to reset the clock on the constitutional amendment,” she said.

Republicans repeated the defense on Tuesday as Democrats criticized the party for forcing a delay. Sen. Katie Muth, D-Royersford, offered an amendment to HB 14 that created the two-year window through legislation – but the majority party declared it unconstitutional. 

Muth pointed to neighboring states, including New Jersey, New York and Delaware, that enacted similar legislation without incident.

“These surrounding states that have passed statutory changes have not faced one legal challenge,” she said. “What does that say? Does that say that the Pennsylvania General Assembly is full of cowards? I hope not.”

Staff Reporter

Christen Smith follows Pennsylvania's General Assembly for The Center Square. She is an award-winning reporter with more than a decade of experience covering state and national policy issues for niche publications and local newsrooms alike.