Mark Rozzi on a Personal Journey: Abuse Victim Determined to Change Laws
By Ivey DeJesus
April 13, 2016
|Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, on Tuesday, after the House approved reform legislation to child sex crimes, said the chamber considers many important issues, but perhaps none as important at child sex crimes. (Ivey DeJesus/PennLive)|
His voice, though quivering, filled the cavernous chamber.
Rep. Mark Rozzi didn't have to dig too deeply. The emotion had been welling in him - not for weeks - but years.
Rozzi, who was abused by a priest at the age of 13, was determined not to fail.
The legislation that could hold out some justice and recompense for hundreds if not thousands of victims like him was on the line.
In the House of Representatives on Tuesday afternoon, the hum of conversations among representatives and staffers came to a halt, the kind that amplifies a pin drop.
House Bill 1947 faced a motion for suspension. The bill would eliminate criminal statutes of limitation on child sex crimes here on out; it would extend the window for victims of child sexual abuse to take civil actions to age 50. Even past victims, under the law, would have until age 50 to file civil action.
But the bill's sovereign immunity waiver provision, opening government entities, such as schools, to civil suits, was questioned. One by one members took the podium to state their objection to the bill. It had happened so many times over the years: efforts to reform child-sex crime laws defeated.
Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, questioned the constitutionality of the retroactive provision that would revive civil statutes that had expired at a victim's 30th birthday and extend them to age 50. The bill, he said, raised an issue with the obscure remedies clause - which has been set by court precedence.
"To my untrained legal eye, House Bill 1947 as amended, looks like it violates remedies clause," he said.
A potential offender, he explained, earns a particular vested right once statutes expire.
"Let me say I'm not in favor of giving rights to these offenders," Diamond said, his voice also quivering.
But legislators couldn't just leave it up to the courts to figure it out, he argued.
"It falls upon us to decide whether something is constitutional," Diamond said.
Once the Legislature passes a bill, the courts assume that legislators have acted in a constitutional manner, he reminded.
One by one a cadre of House members took the podium - some to support the bill, others to object.
Diamond, after asking for the additional 30 days to consider the constitutionality of the bill, addressed Rozzi personally.
"I absolutely apologize to my good friend from Berks County if you thought for any reason I was trying to delay justice. You are absolutely wrong," he said.
Too much was on the line. Rozzi pulled out the last salvo - the heart-wrenching account of being raped at 13 by his priest, Edward Graff.
Details that rolled off his tongue, stunned listeners, even if they had heard the story before: Rozzi, a scared young man at the cusp of adulthood, being raped by the priest in the shower. His friends - waiting - targeted as next in line.
Words and images seldom used in a chamber overseen by the massive painted portraits of Ben Franklin, William Penn and other founding statesmen rolled of his tongue. Rozzi rose in opposition, his abuse as a 13-year-old guiding his determination to change Pennsylvania's laws.
The only sound in the vast chamber was his voice.
With only minutes left before the vote, Rozzi told his fellow House members: "We all take our own personal journey to get to the House of Representatives. We all have a different course. It was never a straight line."
For him, the journey, he said, began in 2009, when a second childhood friend killed himself after years of being tormented by the wounds of abuse. "He took the gun, put it to his chest and killed himself. That's the day I knew that I let down all the children of my parochial school."
"I have tremendous guilt that I didn't speak up sooner," Rozzi said. When he did speak up, 40 boys who had been sexually abused "by this monster" contacted him.
His recollection of a day in the rectory, childhood friends by his side, all of them frozen with fear at what had happened in the shower, to this day vivid in his mind.
"We better keep our mouth shut or he is going to destroy our families," Rozzi remembers saying.
He implored to the House members: "Put yourself in my place. As a 13-year-old. What would you do?"
"He had us drinking alcohol, showing us porn, teaching us about sex. He was teaching me about sex, putting me in different sexual positions because I needed to know that."
He picked up his clothes, ran out of the shower and past other people in the rectory "who had to know what was going on. Nobody cared."
He struggled with the abuse every day of his life.
"All I want is justice," Rozzi said.
In the end, the House stood with Rozzi, voting 180-15 in favor of HB 1947, which amends the state's laws that apply to sex crimes, in particular child-sex abuse crimes.
Shortly after, in the quiet of his office in the Irvis Office Building of the Capitol complex, Rozzi, sitting behind his massive but sparsely decorated desk, could not hide the rawness of the afternoon that still colored his face. His eyes were still bloodshot; his voice still subject to the cracks that give way to tears.
"It was very difficult," he said. "It was loud in there .... to have my colleagues want to pay attention to what I had to say, that meant the world to me. That they wanted to hear what I had to say....there weren't people walking around. Everybody was in their seat."
The Legislature, he said, considers important issues, but few as important as this one.
"It's an amazing step for victims," said Rozzi,. "My phone is blowing up with victims reaching out because today we gave them a little chance of hope. As a victim they know what I mean when I say a lot of the time we hang on by threads. Our days are usually masked with troubles. Just to know that there is the possibility that you can go into a court of law and get the justice you were denied, it's everything to these victims. They want to be heard. They want the truth out. I hope victims are proud today because this was for them today."
A chamber that has seen a significant share of infighting, debate and breakdown, was able, Rozzi said, to come together for this cause.
"I feel a sense of togetherness that we can be together on this issue to protect our children," he said.
The bill now moves to the Senate. Its first stop: the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Rozzi has already met with its leader, Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery County.
Rozzi asked him to be "outright honest with him."
Greenleaf, he said, promised to give the bill a fair look.
"That's all I can ask for," he said. "Don't go biased. Go with your heart open and try to do the right thing for the children of the Commonwealth, past, present and future."
House Bill 1947 - should it pass the Senate and proceed to Gov. Tom Wolf's desk - would put Pennsylvania among the ranks of states that have amended laws to protect victims - even past ones. It would go into effect 60 days after being signed by the governor.
"That to me is the biggest accomplishment of this bill," Rozzi said. "That we are taking this step to protect the best resources in the state - our children."
As it goes to the Senate, the bill faces the might of powerful detractors such as the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference.
Its spokeswomen, Amy Hill, on Tuesday published an opinion column on PennLive warning that the bill could lead "to the closure of parishes, schools, and ministries of today's Catholics, who are in no way responsible for abuse that occurred decades ago."
Similar bills in other states, she said, have led to the bankruptcy of Catholic organizations.
"...Bankrupting the ministries of today's Catholics, like their parishes, schools, and charities, is not justice," Hill wrote.
Rozzi vowed to do "everything we can" to get the message out to Senate colleagues.
"I want Senators to know they will be held accountable from victims ..if they fall and collapse to special interests, shame on them," he said.
Once again on this afternoon, his voice thundered, challenging the lobbying arm of the Catholic Church as well as the lobbying might of the insurance industry: "Can they just stand up and just do the right thing. Where is their moral compass..even when they got beat badly...you'd think they want to step up and say we want to do the right thing now. They are doubling down to try to kill this bill. They are still trying to silence victims."
Mark2.jpg Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks County, and a victim of sex abuse as a child, speaks at the Crime Victim Awareness Rally in the Rotunda at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Apr. 11, 2016. Mark Pynes | firstname.lastname@example.org