(The Center Square) – Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said changing state law to open a civil litigation window for survivors of child sexual abuse remains legal, “sound” and “preferable” to a lengthy constitutional amendment process.
“I have long believed that going through this constitutional amendment process is nothing more than an unnecessary delay for these brave survivors who’s voices have led to this change and this global reckoning that we are seeing,” Shapiro told the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday. “I have long maintained that it would be not only preferable for the survivors, but perfectly legal in order to just simply pass a statute.”
His comments come after the House again approved a bill that opens a two-year litigation window for survivors to sue for crimes committed against them as children. The policy came from a 2018 statewide grand jury report into allegations of rampant child sexual abuse in six of the state’s eight Catholic dioceses.
It’s unclear if Senate Republicans will support the measure. Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Greensburg, said last month that she and a majority of her caucus preferred pursuing the change through constitutional amendment – a two-year process that means the proposal won’t appear on the ballot as a voter referendum until at least 2023.
Constitutional amendments must pass the General Assembly in two consecutive legislative sessions before appearing on the ballot as a voter referendum. In February, just as the Senate planned to approve an amendment for the litigation window for the second time, the department admitted it never advertised the proposal the first time it passed in 2019.
The clerical error forced the resignation of former Secretary Kathy Boockvar and triggered an investigation from the inspector general’s office. Lawmakers contemplated an emergency amendment to get the effort back on the ballot in May, Ward rejected the idea as too risky and legally unsound.
House lawmakers support restarting the constitutional amendment process, but said a “dual path” that also changes state law would provide more immediate relief for survivors, who could begin suing abusers as soon as the bill is signed.
Republicans in Senate worry the measure will face legal challenges that will render it useless – or unconstitutional. Shapiro said Wednesday he doesn’t share the same concerns and that "a dual track makes sense."
“It is if my firm belief that it is statutorily sound,” he said. “It’s legal.”
Sen. Steve Santarsiero, D-Doylestown, said he thinks votes exist “on both sides of the aisle” to pass the bill now.
“I think there’s broad agreement that a remedy needs to be given,” he said. “It seems to me there’s sound legal reasons to allow it be done statutorily. And even if it’s challenged, okay, but we should act and at least give these victims that opportunity and if there’s a challenge, we can take our chances in court.”