(The Center Square) – Frustration and betrayal befall the story of Pennsylvania’s current legislative gridlock, but for one lawmaker, there’s still a chance for redemption waiting on the other side.
“Pennsylvania is a commonwealth of conscience,” said Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Hollidaysburg, in an interview with The Center Square on Tuesday. “That is my hope.”
Gregory’s comments come one day after he testified – in graphic detail – before the Republican Policy Committee about the sexual abuse he endured as a 10-year-old boy growing up in western Pennsylvania. At the conclusion of his harrowing account, he pleaded with his colleagues to advance a constitutional amendment reforming the statute of limitations for thousands of other survivors awaiting justice.
And although recalling the episodes left him “emotionally drained,” Gregory said the specificity and graphic nature of his testimony was meant to “help his colleagues understand what real child sexual abuse looks like.”
“If there is any God in heaven, they will heed what I said and why I said it – for the sake of victims – to put the politics aside for the other things that people might want so that we can be a commonwealth of conscience,” he said.
Gregory came to Harrisburg in the aftermath of a 2018 grand jury probe that revealed six Catholic dioceses across the state – including one in his legislative district – covered up allegations of sexual abuse involving more than 300 priests and 1,000 children.
He’s since sponsored a constitutional amendment with House Speaker Mark Rozzi, D-Temple, to open a two-year retroactive window for adult survivors to sue their childhood abusers in civil court.
The effort passed comfortably in the last legislative session, but a recent decision to package the proposal with two other amendments, for universal voter ID and regulatory reform, unraveled Democratic support in both chambers.
An unprecedented impasse over operating rules in the House further complicates the matter, legislative sources say. Even if Republicans agreed to unbundle the amendments, lawmakers can’t form committees, convene meetings or vote on bills until both parties agree to parliamentary procedure.
In an attempt to break the logjam, House Republicans spearheaded an effort this week to collect enough signatures to recall the chamber to session – in spite of Rozzi's refusal to do so. As of Tuesday, fellow lawmakers said, the petition was just one signature shy of its 101 requirement after Rep. Tom Mehaffie, R-Hershey, refused.
“We are running out of time,” Gregory said Tuesday, noting that many aging abusers may die before ever facing accountability, leaving survivors without the closure they deserve. “It’s more than just the [legislative] clock.”
Constitutional amendments must pass in two consecutive sessions before becoming a ballot referendum. It’s a two-year process, at minimum, that faced a devastating setback in early 2021 when the Department of State brought to light a clerical error that forced the question off that year’s primary ballot.
The House's parliamentary gridlock, however, may delay the referendum again. Should the chamber miss the upcoming primary deadline, voters couldn't weigh in on the issue until November, at the earliest.
Rozzi, for his part, has said action on statute of limitations reform remains his top priority – but it’s not something he can address until the chamber irons out operating rules for both special and regular sessions. He's instead turned to the public for advice as he embarks today on a "listening tour" to break the gridlock.
Still, according to legislative staffers, Gregory’s request to advance the reform without the other two amendments – in defiance of Republican leadership – came as a surprise.
Gregory played a pivotal role in securing Rozzi’s unlikely speakership in a deal brokered earlier this month that led to a narrow majority of Republicans vote for a Democratic House Speaker – the highest-ranking position in the chamber.
Gregory later said Rozzi betrayed him after the longtime Democrat backpedaled on a promise to switch his affiliation to independent and caucus with neither party. Rozzi deflected this criticism last week, insisting he could “lead independently” without leaving his party.
The negative publicity surrounding the debacle comes with a silver lining – a louder platform from which to shout for reform, Gregory said. It’s a fight he says he’ll never give up, no matter how many setbacks and personal affronts he may face.
“I have to take this opportunity to speak for the victims,” he said. “They don’t get to speak, so I will.”