Amid mounting public pressure, legislators prepare to take up retroactive reform to child sex crimes

By Ivey Dejesus
September 24, 2018

The state House of Representatives this week is poised to consider a Senate bill that would reform the statute of limitations, forever changing the way Pennsylvania prosecutes child sexual predators. Only a handful of predators identified by a grand jury investigation have been indicted as a result of expired statutes of limitations.
Photo by Mark Pynes

Attorney General Josh Shapiro is urging lawmakers to enact all four major recommendations handed down by the grand jury. These include: -The elimination of criminal statutes for child sex abuse -Creation of a two-year civil window -The enactment of new laws that specify that confidentiality agreements do not cover conversations with law enforcement -The clarification of penalties for continuing failure to report child sex abuse

Rep. Mark Rozzi, a Berks County Democrat and prominent victims advocate, is expected to introduce a "retroactive window" amendment to Senate Bill 261. The measure would open up a short period of time during which victims who have timed out of the legal system can sue predators in civil court.

Support for the retroactive measure falls mainly along partisan lines, although a small number of Republicans, notably Sen. John Rafferty of Montgomery County, have pledged their support for the measure. The GOP leadership, while signaling a measured willingness to consider alternative options, mostly stands behind the idea that a retroactive window would be unconstitutional.

Because the statute of limitations have expired for the overwhelming majority of cases outlined in the grand jury report, Shapiro has been able to indict only two priests. Felony charges were filed against Father David Poulson, 64, of the Diocese of Erie. Poulson is accused of sexually assaulted two boys over the course of many years. The Rev. John T. Sweeney, (pictured here) of the Diocese of Greensburg, this summer pleaded guilty to committing a sexual assault against a 10-year-old boy. Sweeney pleaded guilty to one count of indecent assault.

The bishops at the head of the six Pennsylvania's dioceses investigated in the grand jury are considering the creation of an independent panel to review abuse claims and recommend compensation for victims. The program would be independent and voluntary and would include a panel of experts to review individual cases and determine financial assistance.

When members of the state House of Representatives reconvene on Monday after a summer hiatus, they will take up for debate an issue that strikes at the heart of the Roman Catholic Church.

For more than seven decades, church officials across the state's eight dioceses have concealed from parishioners, the public and law enforcement the sexual abuse of thousands of children at the hands of priests.

That systemic concealment of crimes has permitted the passage of time, and with it, the expiration of the time extended to victims by law to prosecute predators.

In the wake of yet another blistering grand jury report detailing horrific and gut-wrenching crimes against children - sometimes committed on some as young as 18 months - lawmakers will take up one of the most contested issues in recent times: the reform of the statute of limitations.

None of the 1,000 cases of child sexual abuse uncovered by the recent grand jury investigation can be prosecuted.

For all, the statute of limitations has expired. Attorney General Josh Shapiro has bemoaned the fact that he can't prosecute every single living priest or bishop implicated in crimes. Shapiro, to date, has indicted only two priests, convicting one of them. To date, no bishop has been indicted.

Among their recommendations, the 23 jurors in the 40th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury have called on the Legislature to reform the law and extend to time-barred victims a retroactive window to allow them to file civil suits.

Amid the outcry from the faithful, the public and the survivors of abuse, some say it's an opportunity to atone for past transgressions. Others are referring to it as the reckoning. Others simply note that it is the right thing to do.

The House is slated to debate Senate Bill 261, a piece of legislation that arguably broadens the statute of limitations, retooling it after laws applied to murder.

If passed, the bill would eliminate any time bar on the prosecution of child sex abuse: no matter the passage of time, a predator could be criminally prosecuted, regardless of the years that have passed since the crime.

Indeed, SB261 offers broad measures that would reform the law. But the bill was crafted and passed by the Senate last year, long before the grand jury investigation uncovered the widespread sexual abuse of more than a thousand children across the state by Catholic priests over seven decades.

Victims and advocates say it falls woefully short in some areas, most glaring its failure to provide to adult victims who were abused long ago as children a path to bring predators to justice.

On Monday, the momentum engendered amid the public outcry over the horrific rapes and assaults outlined in the grand jury report will come up against another formidable force: historical impasse.

Ahead of new legislative session, AG Shapiro and two GOP lawmakers urge lawmakers to enact grand jury recommendations

In a near-deja-vu case, the House two years ago tweaked a similar bill in the wake of another blistering investigation into the Catholic Church that found identical and systemic clergy sex abuse of children in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

Led by Rep. Mark Rozzi, a Berks County Democrat who has become a perennial advocate for victims, lawmakers looking to establish the so-called "retroactive window" came within inches to achieving that goal.

At the time, the retroactive measure passed in the House with overwhelming support, but at the 11th hour, the bill failed in the Senate, where lawmakers - the majority Republican and bolstered by lobbyists from the church and the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania - made a case that the bill was unconstitutional.

This time around, the scenario is poised to play out along near-identical lines: Backed by a growing number of House members, Rozzi's measure is expected to pass by an overwhelming majority. The amended bill will then return to the Senate for concurrence, and that's where it is certain to hit the obstacle.

Once again, the fate of the retroactive window - and the profound hope of victims - lies in the hands of a handful of senators who must vote in favor of the amended bill to tip the balance of the GOP-controlled Senate in its favor.

"I'm going to do everything I can to pass the bill," said Sen. Daylin Leach, a Montgomery County Democrat who up until recently opposed the retroactive measure. A prosecutor, Leach was concerned that the measure could lead to injustices in the litigation process.

That all changed, he said, after he read the grand jury findings and speaking with victims.

"The report is just very difficult to get through without becoming physically ill," Leach said.

"I  began to question whether I  was being too analytical and not empathetic enough in understanding what these people had been through. Was I relying too much on how many angels can dance on a pin? Is it really that slippery of a slope?"

Without a doubt, the balance of the vote falls along partisan lines: the majority of Democrats support the measure, while their GOP counterparts, who enjoy a slim majority margin, stand, for the most part, behind party leadership and the powerful legislative arm of the church, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference.

In the past, the conference has vigorously opposed the retroactive measure. This time around, amid the public outcry and mounting pressure on the worldwide church, its language has soften imperceptibly.

"We have heard that various alternatives and programs may be proposed to address the issue of childhood sexual abuse," said conference spokeswoman Amy Hill. "We look forward to reviewing all proposals introduced by the legislature."

Meanwhile Pennsylvania's bishops are considering the creation of an independent panel to review abuse claims and recommend compensation for victims. The program would be independent and voluntary and would include a panel of experts to review individual cases and determine financial assistance.  

News of that review panel came at the heels this week of a class-action lawsuit filed against the church's eight dioceses in Pennsylvania.

In a joint statement, the bishops said they would support "all reasonable and constitutional efforts" focused on helping survivors and their families on a path toward healing.

One of the most prominent victims advocate organization excoriated the church for the idea, which it said was a deflection tactic.

"Victims want and deserve justice, not just money. Survivor needs are better addressed by changes to the state's statute of limitations and a civil window," SNAP, which stands for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said in a written statement. "A civil window and permanent changes to the statute of limitations are the best deterrents to future cover ups in the Catholic Church, and in other institutions."

But the highest-ranking Republican and Senate leader has indicated that only a court action could open the way for the retroactive components to reform.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati insists that only a change to the state Constitution could compel the Legislature to reform the statute of limitations.

Scarnati argues that the Pennsylvania Remedies Clause prohibits a retroactive change to civil and criminal statute of limitations. He says a retroactive measure would violate the state constitution.

For now, that position remains the same: The majority of Senate Republicans stand behind SB261, which would eliminate all criminal and most civil statutes of limitations for child sex abuse crimes and the crimes associated with it.  The bill also would eliminate the statute of limitations for criminal charges for conspiracy that facilitates the abuse of a child.

"Our goal 18 months ago  - as it is now - was to help the victims of these heinous crimes," said GOP Caucus spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher. "We continue to have an interest in how the state Constitution aligns with the proposed amendment for a 2-year window."

Kocher said the GOP leadership has asked Shapiro to produce a report on why the window falls within the bounds of the state constitution.

"In the end, we will review whatever bill the House sends us as well as the information from the attorney general," Kocher said. "We will meet with our caucus and see where we go from there."

The list of Republican senators who have vowed - or signaled - support for the retroactive measure has increased - but ever so slightly.

None has been more outspoken than Sen. John Rafferty, a Catholic from Montgomery County who has expressed consternation for his church for its failure to prevent the abuse and address it.

Vice chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Rafferty last week joined Shapiro and a cadre of law enforcement officials and victims to urge passage of the window.

"Speaking as a Catholic - a practicing Catholic - I  am appalled at the conduct of the Catholic Church and the dioceses with what they have done to allow this to happen," he said.

Rafferty has rebutted Scarnati's argument over the remedies clause, and notes that the retroactive window would apply exclusively to adults who were sexually abused as children. He calls it "a good compromise."

"I know I'm on the side of right," he said this week.

Sen. Ryan Aument, a Lancaster Republican, has signaled willingness to consider the measure.

Aument said he was "open to a conversation around retroactivity" when he spoke to Talking LancasterOnline last week. He said he has met with abuse victims and their families, and said the conversations were "heart-wrenching."

With pressure mounting, victims, advocates and their legislative allies have mounted a veritable full-court press to change the minds of the GOP majority.

Rozzi, who was abused by his Allentown Diocese priest when he was 13, says nothing should stand in the way of his so-called "Window To Justice" legislation, which he says "levels the playing field."

"We're done with the old, tired excuses from the church and from the politicians," he said.

On Monday, a spate of rallies and press events will underscore the efforts by victims advocates to secure support and passage of the retroactive bill.

Rozzi on Monday will hold a rally with other lawmakers at the Capitol Rotunda to drive home his message. In addition to Rafferty and Leach, he'll be joined by former House speakers and former acting-Gov. Mark Singel; as well as Rep. Katharine Watson, R-Bucks, chairwoman of the House Children and Youth Committee and a dozen former House and Senate members, some of whom are coming from as far as California.

Advocates on Monday morning will also march to City Island then proceed to the Capitol, prior to the news conference.

Later in the day, Gov. Tom Wolf, First Lady Frances Wolf and Shapiro will all headline another rally - this time for survivors. Speakers will include Olympic gymnasts and Larry Nassar survivors Rachael Denhollander and Jamie Dantzscher.

Terry McKiernan, president of, a Massachusetts-based advocacy group that maintains records of clergy abuse, says the retroactive window is an absolute essential component of the bill.

"I would beg the legislators uncertain as to whether they could support to go back and read the Pennsylvania grand jury report," he said. "Go back and re-read if they must and register that so many victims whose abuse is chronicled in the report are out of statute and quite obviously deserve justice.  There is absolutely no question. This isn't something good to to do. It's something that absolutely must be done."

The church - by way of its legislative arm, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference - has historically noted that it generously extends care and financial support to victims for counseling and therapy. In addition, church officials argue that a retroactive window would open a floodgate of lawsuits leading dioceses to bankruptcy.

McKiernan applauds the counseling and therapeutic care that the church has extended in year to victims, but he argues that better and more generous care could be afforded to victims in the courts.

"Yes it's going to be expensive but it's money that has to be spent," he said. "It shouldn't be a frightening word. It is their decision about how to handle an expense that they have after incurred. After all, if you can't afford the penalty, don't do the crime."



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