HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s top election official will resign after her agency made a mistake that will delay a statewide vote on whether survivors of decades-old sexual abuse should be able to sue the perpetrators and institutions that covered up the crimes.
Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, who oversaw a tense and difficult presidential election in the battleground state, will resign Feb. 5, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Monday.
The resignation follows the discovery that the Department of State did not advertise, as required under state law, a long-sought 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. Advocates hoped to see the referendum on the ballot as soon as this spring.
But the error means that Pennsylvanians won’t be able to vote on such a change until spring 2023 at the earliest — a blow to survivors who have fought for a window for nearly two decades.
“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 cover-up of decades of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. It is backed by the state’s community of survivors, who three years ago held vigils and other events in the Capitol during tense negotiations in the legislature about the best way to handle the matter.
Boockvar, who was appointed to the $145,244-a-year position in 2019, said in a statement that she only learned of the error last week and immediately notified Wolf’s office. Still, she believed accepting responsibility was the right thing to do.
“I’ve always believed that accountability and leadership must be a cornerstone of public service,” she said.
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.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, whose office spearheaded the investigation that led to the 2018 grand jury report, said he spent the morning on a Zoom call with survivors, who were in turn confused, confounded, and upset.
Under state law, proposed changes to the Pennsylvania Constitution must be approved by the legislature in two consecutive sessions.
The two-year window was first approved during the legislature’s 2019-20 session. It was passed again last month by the House of Representatives and is expected to soon clear the Senate. The goal was to take the question to voters statewide during the May primary.
Before a question can appear on the ballot, however, Boockvar’s department is required to publicly advertise the proposed change — with ads in two newspapers in every county each time the legislature approves it.
While the Department of State did properly advertise a handful of other constitutional amendments that passed during the 2019-20 session, officials discovered last week that the agency had failed to do so for the proposed two-year window. Now, the process must begin anew.
Shapiro said he had been in contact with legislative leaders about a solution, which he believes should be to pass the measure through the normal bill process rather than through a constitutional amendment.
“I need this to be right for these people,” Shapiro said of survivors. “They have suffered so much, and they deserve so much better than what some in their state government have done to them.”
Wolf and other Democrats on Monday also urged Republican leaders to reconsider the approach. In the past, the top Republican in the Senate, Joe Scarnati of Jefferson County, had blocked making the change through a bill, which he believed was unconstitutional. Scarnati, however, did not seek reelection and has left the legislature.
In an interview, the Senate’s top Republican leader, Jake Corman of Centre County, said his caucus was blindsided by the news Monday and had not had an opportunity to discuss the best way to proceed.
But he signaled that there could be trouble persuading GOP senators to pass the measure through the normal bill process. Those senators, he said, have long believed that retroactively changing the law would violate the state constitution and, in extension, their oath to uphold it.
“It was a clear concern of our caucus before,” Corman noted.
Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland) also signaled that the legislative path may be a dead end, saying in a statement that the legislature is “back to square one.”
The governor stressed that Boockvar’s decision to step down had nothing to do with how she led the department during last year’s presidential election. Boockvar and Wolf were targets of intense criticism by Republicans and others about how they administered mail-in voting during a pandemic. After the election, they defended the state against unfounded conspiracy theories that there was widespread fraud.
“Thanks in part to Kathy’s leadership, Pennsylvania voters either cast ballots using modern voting machines or securely voted by mail for the first time,” Wolf said. “It is through her commitment to helping the counties administer a fair election that we can all have confidence in the accuracy and integrity of the recent election results.”