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If PA senators don’t extend legal time limits for child sexual abuse cases, Governor threatens a special session

Rep. Mark Rozzi (R-Berks), left, speaks during an April 4, 2022 rally in Harrisburg on a bill that would open a new legal time window for survivors of child sexual abuse. Sam Dunklau / WSKG
Rep. Mark Rozzi (R-Berks), left, speaks during an April 4, 2022 rally in Harrisburg on a bill that would open a new legal time window for survivors of child sexual abuse. Sam Dunklau / WSKG

HARRISBURG, PA (WSKG) – Gov. Tom Wolf says if state lawmakers don’t temporarily extend the statute of limitations for survivors of child sexual abuse this year, he’ll call a special session on the matter.

A 2018 Grand Jury recommended the state temporarily lift legal time limits for survivors with decades-old cases to allow them to sue their alleged abusers. Pennsylvania now lets anyone who says they were abused as a child come to court with a civil lawsuit before age 55, but some survivors missed their opportunity when the time window was smaller.

Research shows social and psychological pressures can keep survivors from coming forward for far longer.

Rep. Mark Rozzi (D-Berks) said during a rally in Harrisburg on Monday that the previous time limit discouraged adults who say they were abused as children from coming forward.

“A child that young doesn’t even know what a statute of limitations is, and that’s what we’re trying to make our case to Pennsylvania,” Rozzi said. “The laws back then favored the perpetrators and the rapists. We just want to put everyone on a fair playing field.”

Last year, House lawmakers green-lit a bill sponsored by Rozzi that would give survivors another two years to sue their alleged abusers, but it’s been languishing in the Senate.

“This is the fastest path to justice for survivors,” Wolf said during a rally in Harrisburg on Monday. “They [the Senate] have the ability to do something right now,” he added.

Wolf said he’s ready to force the issue in a special session, but did not say when during a post-rally press gaggle.

Governors have the power to call lawmakers back from a recess if they think it’s in the “public interest.” While lawmakers have to attend, just like in any other session, they don’t actually have to pass any bills.  There hasn’t been a special session since 2010, when Governor Ed Rendell called for one on transportation.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests President Shaun Dougherty, a survivor himself, said he hopes Wolf follows through on his pledge.

“We are not going to let him not do that,” he said. “He [Wolf] just told Pennsylvania that if the Senate doesn’t act, he will. We’re going to hold him to it.”

Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland), who has bore the brunt of criticism over the chamber’s inaction on Rozzi’s bill, has argued opening a legal window through legislation alone would be unconstitutional. Former Senate President Joe Scarnati took a similar stance on the proposal during his tenure.

State lawmakers in 2019 had agreed to amend the state constitution to allow for the temporary lift on the legal time limit, but voters were unable to vote on the change. The Department of State revealed last year that it failed to advertise the amendment’s upcoming appearance on the ballot, which disqualified it. An Inspector General’s report last May found that failure was not intentional.

Rep. Jim Gregory (R-Blair) re-introduced the amendment, which lawmakers in both chambers approved last spring. They would need to do so again next year for it to appear on the ballot.

When asked if he’d support a special session on the issue, Gregory said he’s focused on getting the amendment approved “more than anything else.”