Berks Lawmaker Mark Rozzi Sues Allentown Diocese, Alleging a Priest Sexually Abused Him When He Was 13
By Karen Shuey
May 28, 2020
Berks County lawmaker Mark Rozzi filed a lawsuit this week against the Allentown Diocese and Holy Guardian Angels Parish in Reading, alleging that he was sexually abused by a priest when he was 13 years old.
The Muhlenberg Township Democrat has been open about channeling his struggle with the memory of the incident into fighting for legislation in the General Assembly that would allow victims to seek justice after the statute of limitations on such claims has expired. He has even championed a proposal that would amend the state constitution to get that done.
In the meantime, Rozzi is taking advantage of an apparent statute of limitations loophole to file his lawsuit.
In a similar case, a woman was allowed by the state Superior Court to file a claim against the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown despite exceeding the statute of limitations. The three-judge panel ruled in August that if a jury finds sufficient evidence that the defendant, in this case the church, fraudulently concealed information then the defendant cannot have a case thrown out because of expired statute of limitations.
Allentown Diocese spokesman Matthew Kerr said Thursday that Rozzi's lawsuit is based on a novel legal theory that is still working its way through the Pennsylvania court system. He said the lawsuit fails to take into account that Bishop Alfred Schlert, head of the diocese, and other church officials have cooperated with law enforcement.
"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,” he said in a statement.
Kerr stressed 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 — Berks, Lehigh, Northampton, Carbon and Schuylkill.
Rozzi's lawsuit, filed in Lehigh County Court Tuesday, references the 2018 landmark grand jury report that revealed that more than 1,000 children — and possibly many more — were molested by hundreds of priests in six Pennsylvania Roman Catholic dioceses while senior church officials took steps to cover up the abuse.
In Rozzi’s case, the abuse was at the hands the Rev. Edward R. Graff in 1984 and 1985. The lawsuit says that by that time the Diocese of Allentown was aware of Graff’s sexual interest in children and the overall problem with priests sexually abusing kids.
In fact, the suit states, Graff had been put on “sick leave” in 1979 and 1980, a common phrase used by the church in relation to priests involved in sexual abuse. And in 1986, Graff was sent to New Mexico for “treatment of undefined but ‘serious’ conduct.”
Rozzi learned all of this only after reading the grand jury report, the suit states.
The suit goes on to say that Graff was frequently transferred from parish to parish because the diocese knew of his sexual abuse.
Despite that knowledge, the suit says, the diocese encouraged Rozzi to accept Graff "as someone worthy of trust" and as someone to rely on for physical and spiritual safety. That trust was what allowed Graff the access to Rozzi, which he then used to abuse him.
Graff was eventually arrested in 2002 on child sex charges in Texas and died a month later in prison before facing trial.
Rozzi's suit makes three claims against the diocese and Holy Guardian Angels Parish.
It claims fraud, saying the diocese and parish had an obligation to disclose information about the sexual abuse of children to parishioners, but instead plotted to conceal it. The suit says the diocese “intentionally deceived the plaintiff and other parishioners by telling them to trust their priests, while hiding the true danger of abuser priests.”
The suit also claims fraudulent concealment and breach of fiduciary duty, saying the suppression of the identities of abuser priests was a fraudulent scheme intended to protect the diocese’s interest and reputation.
Finally, the suit claims the diocese and parish took part in a civil conspiracy in their actions to cover up the abuse of children like Rozzi at the hands of priests.
The suit says Rozzi is seeking an unspecified award of damages, including punitive damages, in excess of the mandatory arbitration limits.