New suit alleging sexual abuse by an Allentown priest uses a loophole in hopes of getting around statute of limitations
By Laurie Mason Schroeder
May 26, 2020
|Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, speaks before Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf signs legislation into law at Muhlenberg High School in Reading, Pa., Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019.|
Photo by Matt Rourke
Relying on a loophole that could open the floodgates for other victims years, or even decades, after the statute of limitation on such claims has expired, Berks County state Rep. Mark Rozzi on Tuesday filed a lawsuit against the Allentown Diocese and Holy Guardian Angels Parish in Reading, saying he was sexually abused by a priest in the 1980s, when he was 13 years old.
Rozzi’s attorneys say they are relying on an August state Superior Court ruling that allowed a similar lawsuit, based on new information from the 2016 grand jury report on the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, to move forward. In that ruling, a three-judge panel gave a woman’s lawsuit against the diocese the green light even though it was filed well beyond the statute of limitations, which gives a person until their 30th birthday to file a civil case alleging abuse from childhood.
“For so many years the darkness within the Catholic Church and its hierarchy prevented allegations of sexual misconduct from becoming public,” said Rozzi’s attorney, Benjamin D. Andreozzi.
He said Rozzi was “appalled” to learn about his alleged abuser’s history of misconduct in the 2018 statewide grand jury report on clergy abuse, which identified about 300 predator priests and more than 1,000 victims, and pledged to take action.
Andreozzi said the suit highlights Rozzi’s commitment to expose the church’s cover-up of abusive priests. He said Rozzi also remains steadfast in seeing the state’s statute of limitations revised to give all survivors a chance to pursue claims.
Allentown Diocese spokesman Matt Kerr said Tuesday that the suit does not take into account the fact that Bishop Alfred Schlert, head of the diocese, and other church officials have cooperated with law enforcement.
“These lawsuits, based on a novel legal theory, have been filed against many dioceses. Bishop Schlert has always been transparent about the issue of clergy abuse of minors, and takes swift action to remove accused priests from ministry and to notify law enforcement,” Kerr said in a statement.
Kerr pointed out that in 2002, Bishop Edward Cullen, then head of the diocese, turned over the personnel files of accused priests to district attorneys from the five counties that comprise the diocese — Lehigh, Northampton, Berks, Carbon and Schuylkill.
"We were the first diocese in the state to do that,” he said.
Rozzi has been vocal about his experience of being sexually assaulted while serving as an altar boy in Berks County, first speaking publicly in 2010.
In the lawsuit, filed in Lehigh County Court, Rozzi describes being sexually abused by the Rev. Edward R. Graff, who served for 45 years, including 35 in the Allentown Diocese. The 2018 grand jury report stated that Graff raped dozens of children. He left the Allentown Diocese in 1988 and in 2002, was charged in in Texas with sexually assaulting a teenage boy. Graff died in jail at age 73 in November 2002.
Rozzi said in his suit that he learned from the grand jury report that church officials knew Graff had a history of sexually abusing children as early as 1986 — about a year after he abused Rozzi — and that Graff was sent to New Mexico for “treatment of undefined but serious conduct" to avoid a scandal.
He also learned, the suit says, that in 1979-80 Graff was put on “sick leave,” which at the time was a common euphemism the church used when a priest was sent for treatment related to sexual abuse.
Rozzi said in the suit that he has mental health issues because of Graff’s abuse, which he alleges church officials could have prevented by warning him and his family about Graff. He is seeking a jury trial and unspecified monetary damages.
“The suppression of the identity of abuser priests was a fraudulent scheme intended to protect the diocese’s interests and their reputation,” the suit states.
Rozzi’s suit is the second in less than a week to be filed against the diocese, pointing to previously unknown facts that came out in the 2018 report.
Permitting lawsuits that were previously barred by the statute of limitations was one of the recommendations made by the statewide grand jury, which looked back at abuse claims over seven decades.
Lawmakers in November passed a bill that Rozzi, a Berks County Democrat, sponsored, approving a measure toward a constitutional amendment that would open a two-year window for adult victims to retroactively sue perpetrators and the institutions that protected them. But it would have to be passed again in the next legislative session, which begins in 2021, and then placed on a ballot as a referendum for voters. The earliest that could happen would be November 2021.
In the meantime, many are watching to see what happens with the woman’s lawsuit against the Altoona-Johnstown diocese that Superior Court allowed to move forward.
Renee Rice alleged church leaders conspired to cover up her sexual abuse as a child in the 1970s and 1980s. While the diocese argued that the statute of limitations had expired, Rice’s attorneys countered that she had no way of knowing about the cover-up until she read the grand jury’s report. Superior Court sided with Rice, sending her case back to Blair County Court for trial.
The defendants, three priests and the diocese, appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which agreed in March to review the decision.