Lawmakers Call for Statewide Child Sex-abuse Probes of Catholic Dioceses
By Steve Esack
March 9, 2016
Breathing deeply to control his anger and shame over his childhood rape, a state lawmaker called on prosecutors and the Legislature to use the power of their offices to safeguard children and punish the Catholic Church and other institutions that protect sex abusers they employ.
For decades, the Catholic Church has shielded predatory priests, said Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, a victim of clergy abuse. The most recent evidence of those "systematic cover-ups," Rozzi said, is outlined in last week's state grand jury report that accuses two bishops overseeing the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown of allowing at least 50 priests and other religious leaders to sexually abuse hundreds of children for decades.
It must end now, Rozzi said at a news conference Wednesday in the state Capitol.
Rozzi, along with Rep. Tim Murt, R-Montgomery, called on the state's 67 county district attorneys to conduct grand jury investigations into their local Catholic dioceses and set up phone hotlines to allow victims to step forward.
Under a 2006 law, child sex-abuse victims born before Aug. 27, 2002, have until their 30th birthday to file criminal charges. Victims born after Aug. 27, 2002, have until their 50th birthday. The time line for when victims can file civil claims is shorter. A 2002 law states victims of childhood sex abuse have until they turn 30 to file a civil claim.
Rozzi and Murt want to change that. They want the Legislature to adopt Murt's bill, which would temporarily lift the civil law statute of limitations. The bill would provide a two-year window from the law's enactment for victims to file civil claims, no matter how old the alleged abuse and cover-up.
"For me, as most of you know, this is personal," Rozzi said.
When Rozzi was 13, he was raped by an Allentown Diocese priest, the Rev. Edward Graff. In 2003, the diocese settled a sex-abuse case involving Graff, paying $275,000 to a Texas minor the priest allegedly abused. At the time of Graff's arrest, in 2002, Texas authorities said there were reports of 15 victims in Texas and 12 in Pennsylvania. The Allentown diocese said after the settlement that it had not heard from any of the other alleged victims. Graff died in a Texas jail a month after his arrest.
Murt, also a Catholic, said the Altoona-Johnstown grand jury report is far worse than anything he read in a 2012 Philadelphia grand jury report that found the Philadelphia Archdiocese covered up priest sexual abuse.
"Altoona-Johnstown is disgusting," Murt said. "It's as anti-Catholic as it gets."
The lawmakers' ire was not only directed at the Catholic diocese, however. They also blasted Rep. Ron Marsico, R-Dauphin, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who they claim has bottled up Murt's legislation, House Bill 951, since it was introduced in April 2015.
"He's rebuffed us with extreme prejudice," Murt said.
If Marsico is not willing to move the bill, Rozzi added, he will try to get the bill moved out of his committee so the full House can vote on it.
Murt's bill is not the only one that deals with the statute of limitations. In the House, Rep. Michael O'Brien, D-Philadelphia, and former Rep. Louis Bishop, D-Philadelphia, also a child sex-abuse victim, introduced bills. Bills also have been introduced in the Senate by Sens. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton; Rob Teplitz, D-Dauphin; Andy Dinniman, D-Chester; and John Rafferty, R-Montgomery.
Amy Hill, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, a leading lobbying group in Harrisburg, said law enforcement needs to determine if district attorneys should establish grand juries to investigate child abuse claims. She added that Catholic dioceses have made "great strides" in protecting children by establishing zero tolerance policies and reporting claims to law enforcement.
"We pray that the Catholic Church's painful experience will contribute to a better understanding of sexual abuse in all sectors of society," Hill said.
In a statement after Rozzi and Murt's news conference, Marsico did not directly address their claims or Murt's bill. But he vowed that his committee will consider bills that change the statute of limitations for criminal cases only, not civil.
Marsico said his committee and the Legislature are committed to protecting children, as evidenced by the bills his committee approved to strengthen child sex-abuse laws after the conviction of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
"All of the members of the Judiciary Committee are horrified to learn of the recent allegations of child sexual abuse in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, and our prayers go out to the victims and their families," Marsico said. "The Judiciary Committee plans to work expeditiously to move legislation to strengthen our laws already in place and send it to the House floor for a full vote."
State Attorney General Kathleen Kane released the Altoona-Johnstown grand jury report on March 1.
The report says the late Bishop James Hogan and former Bishop Joseph Adamec kept filing cabinets with 115,042 secret documents detailing abuse claims, priests treatment, transfers and interventions with police since the mid-1960s. The report also outlines a diocesan "payout chart" of $10,000 for victims fondled over their clothes, and up to $175,000 for victims of forced sodomy or intercourse.
On Tuesday, Kane announced that 150 calls have been made to a hotline — 888-538-8541 — the agency set up to receive additional abuse claims about the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese.