In our words: One last plea to Pennsylvania Senate: Provide justice for child sexual abuse victims

Lancaster Online
October 14, 2018

Representative Mark Rozzi, D- Berks, makes a gesture of gratitude to Attorney General Josh Shapiro during a legislator news conference that was held to push for legislative changes that will allow past victims of childhood sexual abuse to seek justice. The conference was held in the Capitol Rotunda Monday September 24, 2018.


The Pennsylvania House of Representatives voted Sept. 25 to send to the Senate an amended bill that would provide a two-year retroactive window during which victims of past child sexual abuse could seek justice in civil court. It also would end the criminal statute of limitations for child sexual abuse, and give future victims until age 50 to press civil claims. The House approved Senate Bill 261 by a vote of 173-21. The legislation was passed in the wake of a  grand jury report released in August that found that 301 “predator priests” in six Pennsylvania Roman Catholic dioceses had sexually abused more than 1,000 children over seven decades. This week, the state Senate will consider Senate Bill 261.

Pope Francis accepted the resignation Friday of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who came under repeated fire in the grand jury report for his handling of abuse allegations when he served as bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

The grand jury found that Wuerl returned the Rev. George Zirwas to ministry even after the diocese had gotten reports that Zirwas had sexually abused a number of boys.

Zirwas, it turned out, was part of a ring of priests who circulated pornographic photos of their child victims and gave their victims gold crosses to wear — so they could be readily identified by other predatory priests.

To use the cross — the symbol of Christ’s suffering — in such a depraved way is beyond belief. And there are hundreds more stories of abuse in the grand jury report that left us horrified.

You’d think that report might have spurred the Pennsylvania Senate to act with great urgency on behalf of the victims of priestly abuse.

And yet, the Senate has put the matter off. Just three session days remain before the Nov. 6 election — Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

Whose side are they on?

Some Senate leaders still seem more concerned with the financial future of the Catholic Church — the institution that enabled and covered up the abuse — than the well-being of abuse victims.

Late last week, Senate leaders were shopping a proposal that would replace the retroactive window in Senate Bill 261 with a court tribunal-managed victims’ compensation fund. Victims would have just one year to file claims with the fund.

But that’s not what victims want. They want transparency from the church. They want to be able to press their claims in civil court, which would enable them to depose church officials and alleged abusers, state Rep. Mark Rozzi of Berks County said in an interview Friday.

He’s among those victims. He was raped at age 13 by his parish priest.

“For victims,” Rozzi said, “it’s always been about the truth.”

Not the money. The truth.

And no wonder. The truth was hidden for far too long. Abusive priests were shuffled from parish to parish. And the church officials who had put abusive priests in the path of children locked away the proof of their terrible judgment in archives to which only the bishops held the keys.

That’s the detail to which we keep returning. If the bishops didn’t know wrongs were being committed, why did they work so hard to keep the evidence sealed away?

And why now, we wonder, are some senators so intent on protecting the institution that orchestrated this cover-up?

One family’s pain

To be abused by a person one trusts is a particular violation. To be abused by a priest who, according to church teaching, is a living disciple of Jesus Christ — imagine the wounds such abuse must leave, the toll it must take.

Ed and Pat Fortney know it all too well.

As they write in today’s Perspective section, five of their eight daughters were sexually abused by a single Catholic priest. The grand jury report described the damage inflicted on the sisters as “incalculable.”

The youngest sister told the grand jury that her son “is the only reason I’m alive. Thank God I had him because, if I didn’t have him — I probably would have killed myself a long time ago.”

And indeed, she tried to commit suicide months after giving her testimony. While still in recovery, she insisted on speaking to an attorney for the commonwealth and a special agent involved in the grand jury investigation.

She wanted to be sure that the investigation was ongoing. She needed to know that the truth would be told.

Her bravery, and that of her sisters, and the other victims who testified before the grand jury, cannot be in vain.

The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, the public affairs arm of the state’s bishops, has spent a fortune on lobbyists charged with blocking legislation containing a retroactive window. It has been aided in this effort by the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania.

Insurers are in the business of making money, so we’re not surprised by their stance.

We continue to be shocked and disappointed, however, by that of the Catholic bishops.

‘Our last hope’

The bishops support a victims’ compensation fund because such a fund would limit the financial damage to the church. And it would shield diocesan records from court-ordered scrutiny.

Senate Bill 261’s retroactive provision would help victims in their 30s and older, who are covered by a previous civil statute of limitations even narrower than the current one. They had only two years after they turned 18 to press a civil claim.

Two years. At a time when most of them still were reeling from the harm that had been done to them as children. Men of God they were taught to trust —who talked of heaven and sin and forgiveness and redemption — had made their young lives hell. Men they trusted — men their parents trusted, because they were priests, and so were automatically deemed worthy of trust — violated that trust. Violated them.

Now, Ed and Pat Fortney write, “Lawmakers are our last hope. Justice for all victims lies in their hands.”

Sen. Scott Martin, of Martic Township, told the LNP Editorial Board last month that he thinks a retroactive window would be disallowed by the Pennsylvania Constitution’s remedies clause.

State attorney general Josh Shapiro and Rep. Rozzi disagree. We think any constitutional issue should be decided by the courts; that’s their role.

Beginning Monday morning, abuse survivors and advocates will read the Pennsylvania grand jury report aloud in the Capitol.

We hope the senators listen. We hope — against the odds — that they finally do the right thing.

Contact state senators

Sen. Ryan Aument, R-36, Lancaster County. Capitol office phone: 717-787-4420. District office phone: 717-627-0036. Email:

Sen. Scott Martin, R-13, Lancaster County. Capitol office phone: 717-787-6535. District office phone: 717-397-1309. Email:


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