Waiting for Justice: Child Sex Abuse Victims Push for Changing Statute of Limitations
By Ivey DeJesus
April 8, 2016
|Three successive grand jury reports between 2003 and 2011 found that church officials in the the Archdiocese of Philadelphia knew about and systematically concealed the abuse of hundreds of children by priests across several decades. The archdiocese suspended scores of priests who were named as child molestation suspects in a scathing grand jury reports. In this 2011 file photo, protestors denounce church officials outside Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke) (Matt Rourke)|
By the time Mike Berkery was in high school, Stanley Gana, then a priest in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, had raped him hundreds of times.
Gana, a spectacled man of 300 pounds, began grooming Berkery in 1978 when the boy, whose family attended Ascension Church in Philadelphia, was in eighth grade.
Gana sodomized the boy repeatedly, forcing him to have oral and anal sex in locations around Philadelphia and New Jersey, and as far away as Disney World, Notre Dame University, New York and Canada.
|Stanley M. Gana|
In textbook grooming, Gana alienated Berkery from his friends and family. He bought him gifts and gave him money, and put him in charge of the animals at his farm in northeastern Pennsylvania. By the time Berkery was 16, Gana had given him the keys to a new car.
Berkery was "John" in the 2005 grand jury report that found institutional cover-up of systemic child sexual abuse by more than 60 priests in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. "John" was one of dozens of victims sexually abused by Gana.
Ravaged by years of abuse, Berkery, a star athlete who was named sportsman of the year, ballooned more than 100 pounds. Despondent and depressed, he turned to alcohol and drugs.
"I contemplated suicide every day," he said this week. "I struggled with that thought every day."
Despite years of therapy and treatment, Berkery, now 53, negotiates deep wounds and has lost all faith in God. He remains in therapy. The one recourse that might begin to assuage his pain is unavailable: justice.
The Pennsylvania House of Representatives once again holds the key to his healing as well as that of hundreds if not thousands of other victims of clergy sex abuse, including hundreds of victims molested by priests of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.
Repeated and failed attempts
For what will be the latest in multiple attempts since 2005, House members on Monday are slated to take up a bill that would reform the statute of limitations - the laws that set the limits on the length of time given to victims of sexual abuse to take legal action against their predators.
None of the priests named in the grand jury reports out of the Philadelphia Archdiocese or the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese can be prosecuted. The statutes have expired in every single one of the cases. In many of the cases, including Berkery's, bishops had full knowledge of the abuse but concealed it to let the statutes expire. Victims can press neither criminal nor civil charges.
Berkery's ability to press charges against Gana come down to reform.
But in a state that has become the epicenter of child sexual abuse the accounts involving clergy out of Philadelphia and Altoona-Johnstown, the Jerry Sandusky abuse scandal and, to some extent, the Bill Cosby rape trial playing out in national discourse the efforts to reform the law has become a narrative of repetition and futility.
In the past decade, no fewer than a dozen bills or amendments to bills have been dragged through the House some amid debate, others stalled amid legislative inaction in an effort to reform the law.
The language of the failed legislation from a roll call of state representatives past and present, including Lisa Bennington, Michael McGeehan, Louise Bishop, Tom Murt, Ed Gainey and Mark Rozzi, to name a few focused on similar central points: the elimination or extension of the statutes, and the implementation of a two-year window that would allow victims for whom the statutes had expired to seek legal recourse.
The bills all met similar fates: Some were amended; others gutted, others neglected. Eventually, all were defeated or expired out of session.
Key to this narrative has been the backdrop and facilitator to the decades of abuse of altar boys and girls, catechists and faithful across Pennsylvania: the Catholic Church.
The powerful influence and purse strings of the church's legislative lobbying arm the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference has for years played a key role in the failure of proposed reform legislation, which, ostensibly, would pave the way for retroactive civil lawsuits against church officials and clergy.
"There are powerful organizations out there that do lot of lobbying and they are well funded," said Rep. Frank Burns (D-Cambria), whose hometown of Johnstown has been devastated by decades of clergy sex abuse and its accompanying silence.
|The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament is among scores of locations across the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese where hundreds of children were abused by priests over four decades, a grand jury investigation found.|
A graduate of Bishop McCort High School in Johnstown, which the grand jury report showed was rampant with clergy sex abuse, Burns said the powerful lobbying muscle of the church continues to be a primary obstacle in the reform of the law. The conference, in particular, opposes the basic ideas proposed with regards to a two-year window, a measure he supports.
'It would have financial consequences," Burns said. "In reality, it would make them responsible for the deeds of the past."
The Catholic Church, like all other religious institutions in the U.S., is not required to report income or spending.
Indeed, it is virtually impossible to glean the amount of money directed by church entities both at the state and national level to sway and influence lawmakers and public policy. In Pennsylvania, for instance, data culled by FollowtheMoney.org, which is sponsored by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, notes the dollar amount contributed by the Catholic Conference to lawmakers at $0.
In 2011, Allen D. Hertzke, then a Senior Fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, directed a study that showed that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had spent in excess of $26 million lobbying for the church's interests.
In assembling the study "Lobbying for the Faithful: Religious Advocacy Groups in Washington DC" Hertzke said he had a "tremendously difficult time" trying to nail down what portion of the conference's budget was advocacy.
"It's so woven through," said Hertzke, professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma and faculty fellow in Religious Freedom for the university's Institute for the American Constitutional Heritage. "It's not clearly delineated. We were not able to get a solid number."
Based on the original calculations, the Bishop's Conference was second only to the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The conferences total is now put at an estimated $10 million- and that's for advocacy only on Capitol Hill. The figure doesn't represent the millions of dollars directed at the hundreds of dioceses, leagues and conferences across the country.
"That's a low-ball estimate when look at the diffusion," Hertzke said.
Mark Singel, president & CEO of The Winter Group, a Harrisburg-based lobbying group, described the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference as a formidable force.
"It has been a battle," said Singel, a former state senator who was lieutenant governor and acting governor, "It's very frustrating because, since Pennsylvania has been the epicenter of child sex-abuse stories, you would think that the Legislature would be willing to take any and every effort to protect children from abuse and to correct whatever statutes or practices stand in the way. How many more episodes do we have to see?"
'Swarming with lobbyists'
In the days after Attorney General Kathleen Kane released the findings of the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese grand jury report in March, scores of lawmakers gave accounts that the halls of the state Capitol were "swarming" with lobbyists for the conference.
"I literally 'bump' into Catholic Conference lobbyists almost every session day," said Rozzi, a Berks County Democrat who has become the face of the effort to reform the law in the Legislature. Rozzi is a survivor of clergy sex abuse.
|Rep. Mark Rozzi, (D-Berks) a survivor of clergy sex abuse, has vowed to introduce amendments to the statute of limitations reform legislation that would provide a window of opportunity - suspending expired statutes - to allow victims of sex abuse to seek justice.|
"Last spring they told my colleague that my story wasn't true," he said. "That prompted the conference's [Robert[ O'Hara to drop by to apologize ... although he still insisted they would never support any civil changes. Members on both sides are constantly telling me they've been approached by these lobbyists."
O'Hara is the executive director and chief lobbyist for the Catholic Conference. A request from PennLive to interview him was not immediately granted.
Having fought to reform statute of limitations in other states, attorney Marci Hamilton says that while the financial might of the Catholic Conference might never be known, the influence it exerts is palpable.
"It is impossible to fully assess the cost to the bishops of lobbying against victims' access to justice but it is obviously a very high priority, with numerous lobbyists working the issue," said Hamilton, of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York. "There is never a step taken to try to improve the statute of limitations where they are not in the picture in the past because members inserted them into the process. That has changed this year with members taking principled positions regardless of the bishops' relentless lobbying."
The Catholic Conference has long cited the potential for faded memories and lost evidence to jeopardize justice should the law be amended with retroactive components.
In an email statement to PennLive, Amy Hill, spokeswoman for the Catholic Conference, recently said the organization subscribed to the position taken by the Task Force for Child Protection, which was appointed in the wake of the Sandusky case and recommended a sweeping overhaul of state child protection statutes, many of which were enacted.
The task force did not recommend changes to the statute of limitations, citing fairness as a major concern, especially "the potential for staleness of evidence and possible constitutional concerns."
Berkery finds the suggestion that victims forget the details of their abuse preposterous.
"I can tell you exactly how his bedroom was set up, where the phone was, the night stands, the lamps, the dressers, where the bathrooms where, the shower, that's where I was first sodomized," he said. "I can remember the furniture he had in the living room. I can remember the bedroom in the farm. I can describe the furniture he had in there. I could go up to that house today and if they haven't changed it, I could describe it to a T. I could tell you where the water pipes are, the secret access to the cellar. I was molested once or twice a week for almost four years. At least once or twice a week, sometimes more. I don't know how the mind works and I don't know why..."
|This 2005 file photo shows incoming bishop of the Wheeling-Charleston diocese, W.Va, Michael Bransfield. Mark Berkery, a witness in the Philadelphia clergy-abuse trial testified in 2012, after being raped for years by now-defrocked priest Stanley Gana. Berkery, then 48, told jurors that Gana rotated teen victims at his Scranton-area farmhouse, and abused him on trips to Disney World, Niagara Falls and a bishop's beach house. He testified that he saw the future bishop, Michael Bransfield of West Virginia, bring a car full of "fair-haired" boys to the farm and that Gana said Bransfield was having sex with the boy in front. (AP Photo/Dale Sparks, File)|
The church's deep pockets
An organization with an estimated global revenue level of $170 billion, the Catholic Church the largest single charitable organization in the country has since 2004 spent well in excess of $3 billion in costs related to abuse allegations, including attorneys' fees, settlements and therapy for victims.
A 2014 study commissioned by the Catholic Church found that more than 4,000 U.S. priests had faced sexual abuse allegations in the last 50 years. The cases involved more than 10,000 children mostly boys.
In Boston, the fourth-largest diocese, after decades of allegations and investigations, church officials in 2003 agreed to pay $85 million to settle more than 500 civil suits accusing priests of sexual abuse and church officials of concealment. The Oscar-winning film "Spotlight" recounts the story of the Boston Globe's investigation of the allegations of sexual abuse and coverup in the Boston diocese.
Just over a dozen U.S. Catholic dioceses have filed for bankruptcy over sexual abuse scandals, according to BishopAccountability.org, which tracks abuse and bankruptcy cases, in addition to a roll call of known predator priests.
In Pennsylvania, the Catholic Bishops Conference has spent an estimated $10 million to defend Monsignor William J. Lynn, an Archdiocese of Philadelphia official who is the only U.S. Catholic official ever convicted for covering up child sex abuse by priest. A state Superior Court, for the second time in three years, recently overturned Lynn's 2012 conviction on one count of endangering the welfare of a child. He remains in prison serving a three- to six-year term awaiting retrial.
While victims advocates have generally attributed the fear of a flood of litigation on the part of the church should the law change, Hamilton says public image not money is the driving force behind the church's opposition to reviving expired statutes.
"Having dealt with this for so long and in so many states I can say with confidence that the religious entities' opposition has very little to do with money and is motivated instead by a desire to keep secret whatever has not yet been released to the public," she said.
In Pennsylvania, where most cases are blocked from court, she points out, more information than usual is available due to the grand jury reports. The bulk of the information remains locked up in dioceses and other institutions the statute of limitations having expired in many of the cases.
For the victims who have no legal recourse, the prospect of recouping any amount of money from the church is a distant consideration.
"They can't give me back my teenage years, my childhood ... or the fact that I didn't learn to talk to girls, that I didn't go to the prom," Berkery said. "They can't give me back my social development. All therapy can do is help me deal with it. I'm never going to be whole. There's always going to be a part of me that's broken. I can't hurt them."
Moved by the stories of victims of clergy sex abuse, Singel, a Catholic from Johnstown and graduate of Bishop McCort, has agreed to lobby on their behalf. Many quickly run out of money. He does much of the work pro bono.
"Here's the reality," Singel said this week. "Victims advocates are painfully aware that there are predators on the streets that we can't touch because of the language in the current law. Imagine the pain of a victim who is coming forward after many years of dealing with this and finally coming to grips with this and are told by their local law enforcement that the statute of limitations has expired. You didn't take advantage of this before you turned 30, therefore you can't file a civil suit."
In Pennsylvania, not only can the victims whose statutes have expired not bring civil suits against predators, they risk libel actions should they name them publicly.
"It's been very frustrating," Singel said.
Reform across the country
Hamilton, author of "Justice Denied: What America Must Do To Protect It's Children," considers concerns over a "flood of litigation" a red herring. Over the past 10 years, she points out, more than three dozen states have eliminated the criminal statute of limitations (for the top counts); approximately eight have imposed "windows" or revived expired statutes to allow victims to come forth. Victims advocates say child sex abuse victims generally, if ever, aren't ready to tell their story publicly until their 40s.
In none of the states that have approved reforms to statutes of limitations have their been a flood of claims, or indeed, false claims. After California, in 2003, tried to revive both civil and criminal statutes of limitations, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to revive the criminal statute of limitations.
Hamilton points to the states California, Delaware, Minnesota, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Georgia that have reformed their statute of limitations and have seen only measured numbers of lawsuits brought against abuse victims.
The lawsuits were not contained to Catholic organizations, but were also brought against school districts, health providers, private academies, Boys Scouts of America, YMCA, a theater group, among them. California, which saw 1,150 claims filed, saw fewer than five false claims. More than 300 predators were identified in the other cases. In Delaware, more than 1,000 cases were filed against a single health provider.
|This 2011 file photo shows the Boy Scouts of America Cascade Pacific Council sign, in Portland, Ore. The Boy Scouts of America failed to protect four Oregon youths from a Scouting leader even though the organization knew of sex abuse allegations against him in California, according to a lawsuit filed in May 2012. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)|
"The logic of statute of limitations reform is so irrefutable that the [Catholic Conference] is in a backward walking mode," Hamilton said. "It has become indefensible. For many Catholics in the state of Pennsylvania, it's just obvious that there should be justice and the only way for the church to get beyond this is to let justice happen and let victims have a day in court."
Altoona-Johnstown: A tipping point?
Soon after the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese story broke early in March, the House Republican leadership began negotiating changes to the statute of limitations. Many saw the latest accounts of horrific abuse of children at the hands of priests and the coverup as a tipping point for reform efforts. Rep. Tom Caltagirone, a Berks County Democrat who had for years opposed reform, came out in full support of a complete overhaul of the law.
Rep. Ron Marsico (R-Dauphin), who like Caltagirone is a Catholic, has long been regarded as the judiciary committee's powerful gatekeeper. Insiders say the Catholic Conference has his ear.
|Rep. Ron Marsico, R-Lower Paxton Twp., is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.|
"We just don't agree," said Singel, who recently spoke to Marsico in the hope of changing his mind. "He is good-hearted person. He is committed to the church and believes that this jeopardizes the good work they do. I don't see it that way. I see it as an opportunity to provide the kind of concern and compassion that I grew up with as a Catholic myself. The church was about reaching out to needy and abuse ... their refusal to deal is disturbing to me."
In the wake of the release of the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese grand jury report, PennLive made numerous attempts to interview Marsico. All were denied. Communication out of his office generally comes by way of written statements.
Bypassing other legislation proposed in the wake of that grand jury report, Marsico a week ago announced HB 1947. The House Judiciary Committee approved it almost unanimously.
Marsico's bill would eliminate all statutes civil and criminal in cases of sexual abuse going forward. It would also extend the the age limit for civil action to 50. HB 1947, however, contains no retroactive measures. That means that neither Berkery nor the hundreds or thousands of other victims out of Philadelphia, Altoona-Johnstown and legions of others out of other diocese across the state will be granted a shot at justice.
Victims advocates are worried that an amendment attached to the bill will muddy the waters, if not outright jeopardize the bill. The amendment would waive the sovereign immunity extended to the state and its agencies and employees in an effort to level the playing field as victims file suits against predators.
Burns, the representative from Cambria County, said he vows to fight for reform. He said he cannot stand by and do nothing knowing his town has been devastated by alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence and suicide all of them, he said, legacies of secrecy.
"People have been living with secrets for 15 years," he said this week. "That's a problem. The statute of limitations runs out for them to do anything about it ... that's why it needs to be extended."
Burns said he is not going after the church.
"I'm prepared to do that against any lobbying influence," he said. "This is about justice for the victim."
Rozzi has vowed to introduce a two-year window reform amendment to Marsico's bill. Both the Philadelphia and the Altoona-Johnstown grand jury reports recommend two-year windows be implemented.
"Ron Marsico's House Bill 1947 is a start ... but we won't be satisfied until there's a retroactive component to his bill," Rozzi said. "I'll make sure of that on Monday."
Now defrocked, Stanley Gana, who is in his early 70s, lives in Orlando, Fla. No public telephone is listed under his name.
Berkery said no statute of limitations should be applied to child sex abuse crimes.
"Any perpetrator of sex abuse of child should get life in prison," he said. "Any institution that harbors or facilitates or enables a predator should be fined massively, millions of dollars. It's not a fair question ... I don't think you can put a price of a life of a child and on the soul of the child."
HB 1947 as it stands with no retroactive component Berkery said, would only revictimize victims.
"It would be a slap in the face," he said. "It needs to be retroactive. There has to be justice."