Pa. House leaders are on a listening tour. Sex abuse survivors feel unheard — again.

HARRISBURG (PA) [Doylestown, PA]

January 24, 2023

By Bethany Rodgers and Bruce Siwy, Pennsylvania State Capital Bureau

“All the survivors that are working on this, we’re all in the same boat. We are mentally trapped in this moment until these legislators act on this.”

Before every interview she does, Lara Fortney-McKeever clasps a delicate key-motif bracelet around her wrist — a symbol of the years she and her sisters spent locked in silence about their childhood sexual abuse.

Even after the arrest of the parish priest who had groomed and molested Fortney-McKeever and four of her younger sisters, a gag order signed as part of a settlement with the Diocese of Harrisburg prevented them from speaking about it. 

They finally broke their silence in 2018, she said, when then-Attorney General Josh Shapiro released a landmark grand jury report identifying more than 300 Catholic priests accused of sexually assaulting children in Pennsylvania. The Fortney sisters’ abuser was among those named in the 884-page document.

“We were stuck in this cage,” she remembers telling Shapiro at the time. “And you handed the key to unlock our chains.”

Since then, she’s pushed for a change to Pennsylvania law that would enable sexual abuse survivors to take perpetrators to court and perhaps find the release and validation that she experienced in 2018. The grand jury report, which spelled out the predatory priests’ crimes in black and white, should galvanize legislators to action, she thought at the time. 

Nearly five years later, she’s still waiting. Though the Pennsylvania General Assembly this month seemed on the verge of taking action for childhood sexual abuse survivors, movement on the issue appears to have fallen casualty to political infighting and a dysfunctional House of Representatives.

The proposal under consideration would lift the statute of limitations for child sex abuse survivors for two years, allowing them to sue perpetrators and institutions guilty of covering up their crimes. To become law, the proposed constitutional amendment must pass the General Assembly in two consecutive legislative sessions and win the approval of Pennsylvania voters. 

Advocates hoped lawmakers would give the amendment a final sign-off in a January special session and set it up for a statewide vote in the May primary.

But now, with the narrowly divided House of Representatives unable to coalesce around a common set of rules, lawmakers stopped gathering in session earlier this month. House Speaker Mark Rozzi last week announced he would conduct a statewide listening tour to try to break the logjam and build support for giving final passage to the constitutional amendment.

The stalemate leaves Senate Bill 1 — which includes a two-year litigation window for Pennsylvania’s survivors of sexual abuse — and any other potential movement on the topic in limbo.

For the constitutional amendment to appear on the May ballot, lawmakers must pass it by Friday and officials must advertise it in newspapers by Feb. 16, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State.

“The General Assembly must act swiftly to make that possible,” Ellen Lyon, the state department’s deputy communications director, wrote in an email to the USA TODAY Network.

More:The new Pennsylvania speaker of the House is already on thin ice. What may come next.

With that swift action seeming less likely by the day, survivors have begun to resign themselves to yet another delay and the probability that they’ll have to wait at least until the November election for the amendment to appear on the ballot.

“It’s just hard to watch their disappointment time and time again, because there are many who are really relying on their day in court,” said Mike McDonnell, an abuse survivor and spokesperson for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). “It’s heart-aching to watch.”

‘How am I supposed to walk away?’

Shaun Dougherty, a Johnstown native and president of SNAP, first tried to report his childhood abuse to authorities at the age of 21, during a two-week break after finishing U.S. Navy boot camp.

Something about his enlistment oath was compelling him to speak up, to do what he could to prevent others from being victimized. It was then that he learned his case was past the statute of limitations — and that because the priest, George Koharchik, hadn’t yet been criminally charged, Dougherty couldn’t even speak publicly without risking a defamation lawsuit.

The silence weighed on him for years, he said. 

Then, in 2012, the diocese removed Koharchik from active ministry in the wake of new allegations against him. Authorities asked any survivors to come forward for their investigation into the priest, and Dougherty for the first time was able to give his statement. 

He got involved in advocacy and began working with state lawmakers, especially Rozzi and Rep. Jim Gregory, fellow survivors of childhood sexual assault.

There have been wins for him: The grand jury investigations and legislation that abolished the criminal statute of limitations for child sexual abuse cases

But the fight for the two-year litigation window has stretched on and on, consuming years of his life.

Now, he’s 53. 

“How am I supposed to walk away from this thing that I’ve hoped for my entire life?” he said. “All the survivors that are working on this, we’re all in the same boat. We are mentally trapped in this moment until these legislators act on this.”