Systemic Problems At PA Dept. of State Caused Delay in New Sex Abuse Statute of Limitations Law: Report

A new report indicates “systemic failures” in the Pennsylvania Department of State led to an ongoing delay in the passage of new laws, which would change the statute of limitation laws for the filing of child sexual abuse lawsuits in Pennsylvania.

On February 1, the Pennsylvania Department of State revealed it failed to advertise a proposed state constitutional amendment which would open a two year “window” in the statute of limitations for the pursuit of previously barred claims. Kathy Boockvar, Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the state’s highest election official, stepped down on February 5, as the result of the revelations.

The procedural error means the proposed constitutional amendment can not be presented to voters until 2023, though advocates both in the state legislature and outside of it are looking for a workaround.

In the wake of the error, the Office of State Inspector General (OSIG) conducted a review of the department’s failure to meet its constitutional mandate on advertising the proposed amendment, HB 963. The findings were published in a report (PDF) in April, and released to the public on May 26, indicating the advertising error was not intentional, but instead the result of a problem with the internal process of overseeing constitutional amendments by the Pennsylvania state department.

“Because of the DOS’ failure to advertise HB 963 as constitutionally mandated, the General Assembly must either restart the Constitutional Amendment process (hence Pennsylvania citizens cannot vote on this measure until 2023 at the earliest) or take legislative or other emergency action,” the state Inspector General report notes. “The OSIG’s review found no evidence that DOS’ failure to advertise the wording of HB 963 was deliberate or the result of intentional malfeasance. Rather, the OSIG found that a combination of internal systemic failures within DOS led to its crucial error.”

Acting Department of State Secretary Veronica Degraffenreid held a press conference on Wednesday, indicating the department would review and change its processes to fix the problem. However, some critics say the report needs to be more transparent, indicating that there needs to be more information about any additional firings or changes in personnel that have occurred as a result of the error.

A plan to place the issue on the ballot in May passed the state House of Representatives, but failed to move in the state Senate.

The proposed Pennsylvania legislation would have given not only a two-year window of time during which a civil child sexual abuse lawsuit can be filed, regardless of how long ago the assault occurred, but it would also extend the statute of limitations moving forward, giving victims 37 years after turning 18 to file lawsuits against perpetrators or organizations that enabled the conduct. Those who are assaulted between the ages of 18 and 24 would have until they turn 30 to bring claims.

Pennsylvania has been the flashpoint for a resurgence of interest in child sex abuse, following the discovery of widespread problems among priests in the Catholic Church a few years ago.

Details of a prior grand jury investigation in the state identified at least 90 Catholic priests that faced credible claims of sex abuse in the Pittsburgh area. However, survivors of the abuse were often prevented from presenting claims since they never learned about the extent of the problems, as the Catholic Church engaged in a cover-up that spanned decades and shifted priests to other locations where the abuse continued unabated.

That grand jury report indicated the Catholic Church of Pennsylvania covered up sexual assaults involving priests who abused more than 1,000 victims, mostly children, over the course of 70 years. After 90 of those priests were identified, it sparked investigations by the Justice Department and states’ attorneys general nationwide, and a number of states have enacted legislation allowing survivors of prior abuse to bring claims against the Church or other responsible entities, regardless of how long ago the assault occurred.

New York, New Jersey, California and a number of other states have enacted similar legislation to extend the child sex abuse statute of limitations in recent years, allowing survivors additional time to present their claims due to coverup activities and inherent issues which may prevent individuals from pursuing claims until later in life.

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