Hohenstein: Justice for Survivors of Child Sex Abuse

Serving the Will of the People

The balance of power in Harrisburg is shifting. For 23 of the past 27 years Republicans have controlled the House of Representatives where I serve; and they have controlled the Senate for 28 consecutive years. This past November, Pennsylvania citizens voted for Democrats in 102 of the 203 seats in the House. In total 12 seats were gained, a seismic shift not seen in a generation. While Republicans enjoyed a comfortable majority in the past, they now have 101 seats, one shy of the majority.

As the 2023-24 legislative session opened last week, we held a bipartisan vote to elect the Speaker of the House, the member who controls what bills come forward for a vote by the whole chamber. Rep. Mark Rozzi, a lifelong Democrat from Berks County, was elected after being nominated by our Republican colleague, Jim Gregory. Rozzi promised to govern as an independent Speaker, where he would caucus with neither party. In his acceptance speech he vowed to follow the rules and preside as a nonpartisan.

For me, the desired result is to have a legislature that is focused on the People’s work and not mired in politics. I was hopeful Speaker Rozzi could pull us toward that nonpartisan place where we can provide Pennsylvania a purposeful government. He tried to do that this week in a Special Session called to address the primary issue he has championed for years, justice for victims of childhood sexual abuse. Speaker Rozzi and Rep. Gregory are both survivors of childhood sexual abuse. In 2020 and again in 2021, they were successful in passing a Constitutional Amendment to give adult survivors the right to sue their abusers (predatory priests, coaches, teachers, and the institutions who had longed turned a blind eye to the abuse of children). Due to a clerical mistake negating the original 2020 passage, the issue must be passed for a third time. This is an extenuating but necessary step to ensure that we deliver justice for survivors.

The Special Session this week was supposed to be the place where that mistake could be remedied, and we could put the issue before the citizens of the commonwealth in the May primary. The hope was that we could come together on a singular issue championed by Speaker Rozzi and Rep. Gregory for over a decade, act together and move on. That is not what happened.

Special Sessions operate by their own rules and are narrowly tailored to deal with just a single issue. The Democratic rules stayed within the single issue, created just a single committee to address it, and made clear that neither party would seek to exercise a majority. The Republicans wanted to create more general rules and would have given their temporary ‘majority’ the ability to take control and potentially keep the elected majority Democrats from taking effect. In my opinion, the Republican rules thwart the will of the people that is represented by the results of our election this past November. Speaker Rozzi, a man for whom this issue forms a core of his personal and political identity, could not swallow the poison pill of the Republican rules and their insistence on exercising power. He was forced to cancel the session, effectively ending the chance for the voters to decide this issue in May. He informed lawmakers that he would be setting up a committee of three Democrats and three Republicans to hash out their differences and bring to the table a sound working government. 

To be clear, there are differences between our political parties’ policies, but this comes down to who supports our democratic form of government, who respects the will of the people and most critically, who is willing to put survivors over politics. I am a Democrat, and I was elected as one. But in my office, we do not play politics. Constituents come to us, and our question always is: “What can we do to help you?” We never ask about party registration or politics because the problems people deal with every day don’t discriminate on that basis – and neither should we.

I view myself as serving as a representative for all the people of my district. My first responsibility in that service is to support a system where all voices are heard, and the voice of the majority is respected. For this session, the will of the people is to have a Democratic majority in place; just as for the past two sessions (and most of the last 25 years) the Republicans have had a majority. The greatest feature of our democracy has always been the ability to transfer power when the people tell us they are ready for power to shift. That is what we must do now.