Ed Palattella: Priest case stirs debate over statute of limitations

By Ed Palattella
Go Erie
May 13, 2018

This is a photo of a display at a news conference held by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro at the Erie County Courthouse on Tuesday. Shapiro (not pictured) announced that the Rev. David L. Poulson (shown here), 64, a priest in the Catholic Diocese of Erie, was charged on Tuesday with sexually abusing two boys between 2002 and 2010.

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In his latest effort, state Rep. Mark Rozzi wants the General Assembly to pass a law that would give the victims retroactive access to the civil courts.

The prosecution of the Rev. David Poulson, the Catholic Diocese of Erie priest charged on Tuesday with child sexual abuse, will take place in Jefferson County, where Poulson owns a hunting camp.

The Jefferson County connection was notable to state Rep. Mark Rozzi.

The Berks County Democrat for years has been pushing to expand the rights of child sexual abuse victims.

In his latest effort, Rozzi wants the General Assembly to pass a law that would give the victims retroactive access to the civil courts. He has lobbied for the change by sharing his story of how a priest raped him in the mid-1980s, when he was 13.

The General Assembly has not passed Rozzi’s retroactivity proposal. Countering it has been legislation proposed by state Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, a Republican from Jefferson County.

Scarnati, like Rozzi, supports eliminating the criminal statute of limitations for child sexual abuse cases going forward. And Scarnati, like Rozzi, supports extending the civil statute of limitations so victims have more time to sue going forward. The current law allows such suits until the victim turns 30.

But Scarnati opposes Rozzi’s key change — giving victims in old cases a two-year window to sue, no matter what the age of the victim and no matter how long ago the abuse occurred. The change “would let all victims come forward” in court, Rozzi said when reached last week.

Scarnati objects to Rozzi’s measure on constitutional grounds. Rozzi said Scarnati should consider the Poulson case. Poulson, who resigned from the priesthood in February, is accused of molesting two boys from 2002 to 2010, including in a one-room cabin at his hunting camp in Jefferson County.

“What else do you need to stand up for victims of sexual abuse?” Rozzi said of Scarnati. “That happened in his backyard.”

Rozzi had been waiting to reintroduce his legislation until a statewide investigative grand jury releases its report — expected later this year — on how six Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania, including the Erie diocese, handled complaints of clergy sex abuse. But Rozzi said the Poulson case has prompted him to restart discussions about the legislation early.

Scarnati will not be on board. Asked for a comment in light of the Poulson case, and Jefferson County’s connection to it, Scarnati’s office said he continues to oppose retroactivity in civil cases.

“He has not changed his view even though he is appalled by the actions of some isolated priests,” Scarnati’s chief of staff, Drew Crompton, said in an email. “He is convinced that allowing a window for initiating lawsuits after the statute of limitations has expired is fundamentally unconstitutional.”

Retroactive elimination of the criminal statute of limitations is clearly unconstitutional, Rozzi said. But, in terms of civil cases, he said his fellow lawmakers should pass his bill with the two-year window and let the state Supreme Court rule on its legality. Rozzi said he believes the measure is constitutional.

He said he has addressed other concerns by, among other things, proposing legislation that would allow victims to sue, within the two-year window, not only private institutions, such as the Catholic Church, but also public agencies, such as school districts. Immunity laws now protect public institutions, Rozzi said.

“That is not right, either,” he said.

In announcing the charges against Poulson in Erie on Tuesday, Attorney General Josh Shapiro called the case another example of why the General Assembly should eliminate the criminal statute of limitations in child sex abuse cases. He said prosecutors believe evidence exists for at least one more case of sexual assault against Poulson, but that the statute of limitations had expired.

“It is long past time to reform these arbitrary time frames so that we can seek justice for all of our children,” Shapiro said.

Shapiro did not comment on the two-year window for civil cases, but he has supported a retroactivity provision in the past. Shapiro’s position is in line with that of a statewide investigative grand jury that in March 2016 issued a devastating 147-page report about sexual abuse and cover-ups in the Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

The grand jury recommended the General Assembly abolish the criminal statute of limitations in child sex abuse cases and “open a window to allow child sexual abuse victims to have their civil actions heard.”

Mark Rozzi said he expects the pending grand jury report on the Erie diocese and the five other dioceses to include similar recommendations. Rozzi is monitoring the release of that report — just as he has been following the events related to David Poulson and Jefferson County.



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