This article is shared with LebTown by content partner Spotlight PA.
By Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA
HARRISBURG — “Internal systemic failures” were behind the Wolf administration’s bungling of a statewide referendum to provide legal recourse for survivors of child sexual abuse, according to a much-anticipated report released Wednesday.
The Office of State Inspector General concluded that there was no evidence that the administration’s mistake was deliberate or the result of “intentional malfeasance.”
But it did find the Department of State, which oversees elections, had no formal process in place for tracking and ensuring referendums appear on the ballot. There was also little, if any, executive oversight or staff training — a chronic complaint from many of the employees interviewed for the inquiry.
The Department of State, according to the report, “lacked executive oversight, written policies and procedures, proper staff training, and consistent communication of the process.”
Immediately after the mistake came to light, the department’s secretary, Kathy Boockvar, resigned her position. On Wednesday, state officials said the department’s head of legislative affairs, whose job includes tracking legislation, had also resigned — although they would not say whether it was related to the mistake.
Veronica Degraffenreid, the department’s acting secretary, apologized Wednesday for the mistake, saying: “It was so horrifying to me and everyone at the Department of State that a grave error — at the department — added to the pain of any victim of abuse.”
Degraffenreid said her agency has already instituted a number of changes to ensure such a mistake never happens again, among them, implementing what she called a “top-down” process that puts high-level staff in charge of monitoring every aspect of getting a question on the ballot.
The inspector general’s investigation was ordered by Gov. Tom Wolf after state election officials admitted in February that they had failed to advertise the ballot question as required by law. That mistake meant the referendum could not appear on the May ballot, as had been planned, devastating the state’s community of survivors who have pushed for it for nearly two decades.
The ballot question would have asked voters to decide whether to allow a two-year reprieve in the law so that older survivors of child sexual abuse can sue the perpetrators and the institutions that covered up for them. Those survivors are currently too old under the statute of limitations to bring such legal claims. A number who are victims of Catholic priests say it took them years to break their silence on the abuse they endured.
The change has been vehemently opposed by lobbyists for the Catholic Church and the insurance industry.
The GOP-controlled legislature, too, was conflicted on the best way to create the two-year reprieve. In the end, lawmakers decided that the change would require amending the Pennsylvania Constitution.
Under state law, any proposed changes to the constitution must be approved by the legislature in two consecutive sessions. The question is then placed on the ballot for voters to make the ultimate decision.
After each passage, the Department of State is required to advertise the proposed amendment in all 67 Pennsylvania counties.
The legislature approved the two-year reprieve in its 2019-2020 session and was on track to pass it again in the current session, so it could appear on the May ballot. But because of the Department of State’s mistake, the process needs to start again anew, and the earliest voters would be able to decide the question is 2023.
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