Abuse survivor whose story was told in 'Spotlight', advocates for reform to PA's sex crime laws

By Ivey Dejesus
May 18, 2016

[with video]

Phil Saviano earned vindication in 2001 when a tough investigating team at the Boston Globe began to look into his claims that priests in that diocese had been molesting children for decades.

Saviano's story, which was depicted in the Academy Award-winning film "Spotlight," has been widely recognized and on Wednesday, the 63-year-old activist recounted that story as part of a panel discussion at the state Capitol on the need to reform the state's sex crime laws.

"This effort to improve statute of limitations across the country is one of most significant things to come out of this Globe investigation," said Saviano, who is also a member of the support and advocacy group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

Saviano was joined on the panel discussion by its organizer, Rep. Mark Rozzi, (D-Berks), George Foster, the Altoona businessman who led investigators into uncovering decades worth of clergy abuse in that city's diocese, Marci Hamilton, a constitutional lawyer, Patricia Dailey Lewis, the  executive director of the Beau Biden Foundation for the Protection of Children as well as two survivors of sexual abuse.

Saviano shared that while the Boston Globe's investigation led to public outrage and exposed some 250 predator priests, it was the 2015 movie, "Spotlight," starring Michael Keaton and that truly disseminated to a wide and global audience the story of decades of abuse and cover-up in the Boston Diocese.

"There's nothing like the power of Hollywood," Saviano said. "I've really been amazed at the impact the movie has had."

The panel discussion, which was attended by a handful of lawmakers as well as parents of survivors and victims, comes just weeks after the House by an overwhelming majority approved and sent to the Senate a bill that would reform Pennsylvania's statute of limitations. House Bill 1947  would abolish the criminal statute of limitations for future criminal prosecutions.

Under the proposed legislation no one accused of a sexual crime will ever be free from criminal prosecution because of a lapsed statute of limitations.  The bill would also raise the civil statute-of-limitations age to age 50.  

Savino, who was abused by a Boston priest for nearly two years starting at age 11, began his quest to make the media aware of the widespread abuse in the diocese when he was 40 when he came across a short article about the priest who had abused him. The article dealt with how that priest had molested two men in New Mexico.

Dailey Lewis, head of  the Beau Biden Foundation for the Protection of Children, recounted the horrors of what is considered the most gruesome pedophile case in this country  - that of Delaware pediatrician Earl Bradley.

Bradley, a Lewis doctor, for decades sexually molested more than 1,000 children under his care, the majority of them pre-verbal toddlers.

"We owe it to the victims and their families to shine a bright light on this problem," Dailey Lewis said. "We will get help for every single child and every single family that has been abused."

Dailey Lewis explained that sexual abuse of children continues to happen because of the law and the fact that few people are willing to talk about it.

"Shining a bright light on it, that's how we will stop it," she said. "The healing begins when you can take your power back, the power that was taken from you so many years ago."

Under current law, victims of child sexual abuse are barred from seeking civil action after they reach the age of 30. Victims can bring criminal charges against offenders until they reach 50 years of age — but only if the victim turned 18 years old after Aug. 27, 2002. The law allows victims older than that to report until their 30th birthday.

Demands for reform in the law this spring reached a fever pitch in the wake of a grand jury report that found that hundreds if not thousands of children in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese had been abused for decades by more than 50 priests. Investigators found that church leaders and officials knew about the abuse but concealed it, and continued to assign abusive priests to posts that would give them access to children.

Foster stressed that no stronger indication that the law needs to be changed could be found in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, which had some years ago seen court cases involving allegations of clergy sex abuse.

The priests at the center of the cases were removed from their posts not because of church action but through the legal system.

"That was only way predators were ever removed," Foster said. "I realized now that the statute of limitation has to be changed. Something has to be done."

The reform legislation that passed in the House is slated to be taken up this session by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Aaron Zappia, a spokesman for Sen. Stewart J. Greenleaf, that committee's chairman, said the legislation was being reviewed "to see if there are any constitutional conflicts with the current language."

Greenleaf, a Montgomery County  Republican, has twice authored reform legislation to the statutes, including in 1985 and in 2002, in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.

Zappia said a hearing on the bill is likely to be held in the "near future."

Questioned whether he wanted the chamber to vote on the bill prior to the summer recess, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre County, said, "We'd like to get it done. I don't get in front of my chairman."

Corman said Greenleaf knew it was an important issue and "is very thoughtful."

"I know it's important to him and we'll go from there," he said.  "I would like to get something done, yes."

Among the biggest opponents to reform to the statute of limitations are the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania.

Author and activist, Hamilton pointed out how the reform movement has gained momentum across the country. Pennsylvania, along with New Jersey and New York, all of which a few years ago had no plans underfoot to reform their laws, are all now considering legislation to reform the statutes.

Hamilton reiterated that most victims of abuse are never ready to come forward with their stories; those that do often find that their legal window has expired.

She said the argument over the constitutionality of these bills was always a last resort.

"It is rarely sincere," said Hamilton, adding that caveat that in some states, such as Illinois, the argument holds water. In the vast majority, including Pennsylvania, the argument is a weak one.

"That issue is a red herring," she said.

The panel also included survivors of sexual abuse at a Bucks County boarding school, which last year came under a grand jury investigation into decades of child sex abuse.

Carol Trickett, who at 79, would not benefit even from a reformed statute, spoke of how child sex abuse robs a child of power, dignity and self-worth and leaves a lifelong wound that often does not heal.

"We really need to create a path for people who have had experiences so they can move on," said Trickett who began being sexually abused by the Solebury School founder and headmaster when she was 14. "They have been brutally betrayed by adults and this is very serious thing to live with."



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