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A Pa. Dept. of State error means some sex-abuse victims will again have to wait for justice

Kathy Boockvar, who oversaw a tense and difficult presidential election in a battleground state last year, will resign her position because of the error.

A Pa. Dept. of State error means some sex-abuse victims will again have to wait for justice

Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA

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HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s top election official will resign after her agency’s staff discovered a mistake that will block voters from deciding this spring whether to allow survivors of decades-old sexual abuse to sue the perpetrators.

The Department of State did not advertise, as required, a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would open a two-year window for litigation by survivors of child sexual abuse who have aged out of the statute of limitations.

Secretary Kathy Boockvar, who oversaw a tense and difficult presidential election in the battleground state, will resign Feb. 5, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Monday. Spotlight PA first reported the news.

“This change at the Department of State has nothing to do with the administration of the 2020 election, which was fair and accurate,” Wolf said. “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. I share your anger and frustration that this happened, and I stand with you in your fight for justice.”

The two-year window was a key recommendation in a blistering 2018 report by a statewide grand jury that investigated the coverup of decades of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. It is backed by the state’s community of survivors, who have been pushing for the change for nearly two decades.

The mistake means that the earliest voters can decide whether to make the change is the spring of 2023.

In a statement, the Department of State apologized for the error and said it has “instituted new controls to ensure that such failings will not occur in the future.”

Boockvar, who was appointed to the $145,244-a-year position in 2019, declined to comment.

Jennifer Storm, the state’s onetime victim advocate who championed the two-year window alongside survivors, called the mistake “devastating.”

“To now say that this is going to get pushed back to 2023 is so offensive … to survivors, who have waited long enough for this change,” Storm said.

State Attorney General Josh Shapiro, whose office ran the grand jury that produced the 2018 report, had harsh words for the agency. “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,” Shapiro said in a tweet.

Under state law, changes to the Pennsylvania Constitution require that a proposal be approved by the legislature in two consecutive sessions. At that point, the proposed change appears on the ballot for voters to decide.

The two-year window in the statute of limitations was first approved in the legislature’s 2019-20 session. It was just approved again last month by the House of Representatives and is expected to soon pass the Senate. The goal was to place the question on the spring primary ballot.

Before the question can appear on the ballot, however, Boockvar’s agency is required to advertise the change both times it is approved. Agency officials discovered last week that the Department of State, which oversees elections, did not advertise the proposed ballot question when it was approved in the 2019-20 session.

That means the process has to begin anew, with the legislature approving in the current, 2021-22 session, and again in the 2023-24 session.

This story will be updated.

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