(The Center Square) – Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar will resign Tuesday after her department missed an advertising deadline for a proposed constitutional amendment that would extend the statute of limitations for survivors of sexual abuse to sue.
Gov. Tom Wolf announced Boockvar’s impending departure Monday after SpotlightPA reported three different sources confirmed the decision upon staff’s discovery of an error that will delay voting on the amendment for another two years. It also comes after months of intense scrutiny from legislative Republicans over the administration of the 2020 election and accusations of mismanagement at the highest levels.
Wolf made it clear in a statement Monday that Boockvar’s resignation “has nothing to do” with the election.
“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,” he said. “I share your anger and frustration that this happened, and I stand with you in your fight for justice.”
The General Assembly approved House Bill 963 in November 2019. The measure opens a two-year window for survivors to file litigation against abusers, even if the statute of limitations long expired. The policy came out of recommendations from a 2018 statewide grand jury report that investigated decades-old claims of child sex abuse in the Catholic Church.
The House voted again in January to approve the measure, with the Senate expected to follow suit soon. Constitutional amendments must pass in two consecutive legislative sessions before appearing on the ballot as a voter referendum.
The department must also advertise a potential amendment each time the General Assembly approves the corresponding bill, but Wolf said Boockvar and her staff didn’t follow through after HB 963 passed nearly 15 months ago.
The error means the question will not appear before voters in the spring primary election, as planned, but rather the entire process must start over, delaying any possible vote until 2023 at the earliest.
Wolf said he hopes to craft a legislative solution with the General Assembly. In speaking directly to the survivors impacted by the mistake, Wolf urged “all advocates to keep up this fight.”
“Your voices still must be heard,” he said.
The news provoked response from all corners Monday. Attorney General Josh Shapiro, whose office spearheaded the grand jury investigation, minced few words.
“The Department of State’s failure to carry out its responsibilities in the constitutional amendment process is shameful, and all options must be on the table to fix this immediately,” he said.
House Republican leaders issued a statement Monday expressing gratitude for Wolf’s “swift” announcement, though they lamented the action won’t undo the damage done to the state department’s credibility. Nor did the leaders suggest any legislative avenue to resolve the issue before 2023.
“Today is a sad day for victims,” Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, and Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, said in a joint news release. “For the last 12 months, our caucus has raised serious concerns about this administration’s ability to competently manage the basic functions of state government. Today, our worst fears were realized by the revelation that incompetency in the Department of State may stand in the way of victims being able to seek justice.”
Senate Democrats announced pending legislation Monday that would open the two-year window without requiring a constitutional amendment, believing that survivors “should not have to wait any longer for justice.”
“This is a disappointing setback in the process to create the window to justice,” said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Pittsburgh. “If we continue with the constitutional amendment process, it will be at least another two years until the window would be created and that’s simply too long. A legislative solution can create the window immediately, and I’m encouraging bipartisan and bicameral support for the bill that members of our caucus is going to introduce. Survivors need justice now.”
Sen. Maria Collett, D-North Wales, was among a handful of fellow Democratic senators shocked by the oversight, saying Monday that “the last thing victims need is another delay, another slight that makes them feel like no one cares about their pain.
“To say I am disappointed by this setback is an understatement,” she said. “I am devastated on behalf of the victims of childhood sex abuse in my district and across the commonwealth who have shared with us their heartbreaking stories and entrusted us to bring them long-overdue justice and path to healing.”
The department apologized Monday afternoon, blaming the error on human oversight amid an influx of bills at the same time that proposed other statute of limitation reforms, including House Bills 962, 1051 and 1171. The error was noticed late last week as staff prepared for potential second passage of the amendment in the coming weeks.
“The department has instituted new controls to ensure that such failings will not occur in the future, including tracking of all constitutional amendments from the time they are filed, and direct notifications to additional department staff when they are signed, along with cross checks to ensure all required steps are carried out,” the department said in a news release.
Lawmakers in the House who also championed the amendment expressed outrage Monday, vowing to find a resolution that doesn't delay the issue another two years.
"We are pursuing other legal alternatives and do not plan to stop until the matter is resolved," said Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks. "Waiting another term for victims to seek justice is unacceptable.
“It is very difficult to accept our Commonwealth and secretary of State could not perform the duty to assure victims and the people of Pennsylvania their voices would be heard," said Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair. "These men and women lived the abuse and will have to live it again."
But for top ranking Senate Republican Jake Corman, R-Bellefonte, approving the measure as a constitutional amendment would better guarantee that survivors could seek justice, fearing that a bill doing the same may, itself, become tied up in legal challenges for years.
"Senate Republican leaders were vilified and dragged through the mud for months when we were trying to create a real solution for victims that would withstand legal scrutiny instead of passing the measure as a bill," he said. "Now, as we see Secretary Boockvar fail to do even the simplest and most basic task to help Pennsylvanians who have been victimized, we see exactly how little this administration actually cared. It was never about people; it was always just about politics.”
Corman first urged Boockvar to resign on election night amid reports of confusing guidance about how to handle invalid mail-in ballots, though he says he's been concerned about the "detrimental" impact of her "ineptness" for "a long time."
"This is just one in a series of disasters throughout her tenure," he said. "This time, Secretary Boockvar has failed the survivors of child sex abuse and disregarded the will of the people. At best, this was incompetence. At worst, this was malfeasance."