Rep. Mark Rozzi

State Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, holds a copy of the attorney general’s report on sexual abuse in the Altoona-Johnstown Roman Catholic Diocese during a news conference March 4, 2016 in Ebensburg.

HARRISBURG – The state House on Wednesday voted 187-15 to ask voters whether to amend the Constitution to give adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse an additional two years beyond the normal statute of limitations to sue institutions such as the Catholic Church that have covered up such abuse.

The measure moves back to the Senate. If it passes there, it could be on the ballot in May. The state Senate Judiciary Committee has already approved a companion version of the legislation that passed the House on Wednesday. Both chambers approved the proposed amendment last legislative session as well. Proposed state constitutional amendments must be approved by the General Assembly in two consecutive sessions.

It is one of several potential amendments that could end up on the ballot in May. Both chambers of the General Assembly this week also voted in favor of proposals to amend the Constitution to limit the ability of the governor to keep prolonged emergency declarations in place, a move inspired by frustration over Gov. Tom Wolf’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The proposed amendment to open a window for lawsuits comes after years of campaigning by abuse survivors, including intense lobbying since a 2018 grand jury report revealed that church leaders in six of the state’s Catholic dioceses had covered up abuse by 300 priests that took place over decades.

“This is an easy vote. Victims have waited long enough,” said state Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks.

Rozzi disclosed publicly that he is an adult survivor of childhood sex abuse by a priest and has led efforts to get the law changed for the past five years.

State Rep. Paul Schemel, R-Franklin, spoke against the measure, saying he’s criticized the proposal repeatedly as it’s been debated over the years. Previously, he’s focused on the concern that opening a window for lawsuits isn’t fair to people accused of crimes that took place years prior, he said.

Schemel said that while proponents say the window will provide victims with an opportunity for their day in court, very few cases ended up going to trial.

In addition, the lawsuits target institutions such as the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts, without going after the molesters who committed the abuse, he said.

The lawsuits “will harm the mission of these institutions,” Schemel said. “They will not harm the individuals who committed the abuse."

Rozzi said that the years of lobbying to get support to change the law has provided the Catholic Church with time to create compensation funds that have allowed them to settle claims against almost all victims.

Altogether, those funds have paid out $84 million in claims to 564 victims – roughly $148,000 per survivor of childhood sex abuse.

Rozzi said holding the church accountable for its role in the coverups was appropriate because church leaders actively worked to conceal the crimes.

“The bishops aided and abetted, the victims had no chance,” he said.

Emergency declaration amendment

The state House also approved 116-86 a proposal to change the Constitution to limit the governor’s authority to keep emergency orders in place. Tuesday, the state Senate voted 28-20 to approve an identical measure. Either the House or Senate must now pass the version passed by the other chamber.

The amendment would end an emergency declaration after 21 days unless lawmakers approve an extension. It would also give lawmakers, with a two-thirds majority vote, the ability to end an emergency declaration. Wolf first issued an emergency order in early March for 90 days. He has extended the order every 90 days since then.

State Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, said that Wolf’s prolonged use of the emergency powers “was never the intention” when lawmakers passed the law granting the governor the power to declare emergencies.

Democrats said that no other state has moved to end its COVID emergency.

“We will be the only state in the nation without the benefit of an emergency order. The reason is simple: The emergency order provides the flexibility we need,” said state Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny, also calling the proposal “as wrong-headed as it gets.”

Speaking to reporters Wednesday afternoon, House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, said that putting the question before the voters will allow the public to decide the matter.

"If the people don't agree with us, they can vote it down," he said.

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.

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