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One year after clergy sex abuse report in Pa., much has changed, much has not

Written by Ivey DeJesus/PennLive | Aug 14, 2019 7:25 AM
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State Sen. Katie Muth, D-Montgomery, center left, embraces Carolyn Fortney, who was sexually abused as a child by a Roman Catholic Priest, during a news conference at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Wednesday, April 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

(Harrisburg) -- One year ago today, Pennsylvania emerged at the epicenter of the global clergy sex abuse crisis.

The 40th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury outlined in horrific details the criminality and concealment of child sex crimes on the part of the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania.

The report seemed a watershed moment for victims and for advocates looking to reverse decades of legal inaction against church officials.

The 18-month-long investigation - the most exhaustive state investigation into clergy sex abuse - uncovered decades-long abuse and concealment of thousands of children at the hands of more than 300 clergy across six dioceses, including the Diocese of Harrisburg.

"Predators in every diocese weaponized the Catholic faith and used it as a tool of their abuse," Attorney General Josh Shapiro said last August as he released the findings of the investigation, surrounded by several dozen victims of child sex abuse.

The 900-plus page report became the gold standard, and in swift order, galvanized dozens of prosecutors across the country to launch their own investigations. Approximately 20 states attorney generals have launched investigations; dozens of district attorneys have followed suit.

By the fall, federal prosecutors had opened their own investigation, using subpoenas to demand secret files and testimony from high-ranking church leaders. The ongoing investigation marks the first such probe ever launched by the U.S. Justice Department into the Roman Catholic Church.

Momentum from the report renewed efforts in the Pennsylvania Legislature to strengthen laws to protect victims and prosecute predators and those who shield them.

It seemed a turning point.

Yet one year later, the scathing report stands at a confounding junction. In its wake, a growing roster of states have initiated their own investigations, and the report has led some states to enact sweeping changes to state child sex crime laws.

Yet in Pennsylvania, the momentum for legislative efforts has been met with perennial hurdles that in the past have stalled and stymied legislative efforts to overhaul weak laws.

"We are proud of how Pennsylvania began that movement," Shapiro said. "The irony, of course, is that the reforms recommended by grand jurors have been adopted by numerous states, including two of our neighbors, New York and New Jersey, yet the Republican leadership in the state Senate has failed to even bring it up for a vote."

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FILE PHOTO: Cindy Leech, left, of Johnstown, Pa., cries during a rally Wednesday Oct. 24, 2018, at the Capitol in Harrisburg. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)

The sentiment is widely shared among the victims' community. Many claim that lawmakers are pushing back against reforms to allow the Catholic Church to reduce its liability through compensation funds, which were widely established in recent months.

"I'm infuriated," said Shaun Dougherty, who was sexually abused as a child by his priest in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

Dougherty last year spent days walking the halls of the Capitol urging lawmakers to vote in favor of reform. "I know why legislation is being held up and it's infuriating."

In September, when the Legislature reconvenes from its summer recess, the Senate will have pending two companion bills that would broadly reform the state's child sex crimes: the bills would abolish criminal statute of limitations and call for a referendum seeking to amend the Pennsylvania Constitution to revive expired statute of limitations. Under current state law, victims must pursue criminal cases by age 50 and civil cases by age 30.

Another bill, this one from the Senate, combines those two actions, which were among the recommendations in the 2018 grand jury report.

But retroactive proposals, which call for a window of time in which victims time-barred from the courts could file civil lawsuits, have long been the primary stumbling block for similar measures.

Leaders in the Republican-led Legislature - particularly the state Senate - have long argued that such a retroactive measure is unconstitutional. Two months after the release of the report last year, a proposal to eliminate the criminal statute of limitations and revive expired civil statutes passed the GOP-controlled House with broad, bipartisan support. But the measure was defeated in the Senate in large part as a result of the retroactive component.

Given that the current House bills received support from House Republicans, it's left to the GOP-led Senate to emerge as the game changer.

"What makes Pennsylvania unusual is that for some reason one party opposed statutory reform in the one place that there was clear evidence by law enforcement that there was a mass criminal conspiracy," said John Manly, a California-based attorney who has represented hundreds of victims of convicted serial rapist Larry Nassar.

"The one party that has had a reputation of being tough on crime is the Republican Party and for the life of me I can't understand why certain Republicans have gotten in the way. They not only decided they were not going to support it, in fact, they were going to block it."

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati said he is committed to taking up the proposed measures pending in his chamber.

"When the legislature returns to session this fall, I am committed to working with my colleagues to address the three House bills currently in the Senate pertaining to child sexual abuse," he said. "However, as part of this discussion it is also crucial to note that over the past year the victims compensation funds set up by the dioceses in Pennsylvania have been working to give victims the financial support they deserve."

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Survivors of child sexual abuse hug in the Pennsylvania Capitol while awaiting legislation to respond to a landmark state grand jury report on child sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018 in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Marc Levy)

The Jefferson County Republican for years opposed the idea of a retroactive window of time on the grounds, he argued, that such a measure would violate the state constitution. Scarnati last year backed off that position, even as he offered his own compromise proposal.

Scarnati noted that to date tens of millions of dollars have been paid out to many victims all across the Commonwealth through the compensation funds.

"Financial assistance cannot change the past, but will aid victims as they attempt to move forward," Scarnati said.

FROM VICTIMS TO ACTIVISTS

In the wake of the release of the grand jury report, scores of victims found their voices and courage to emerge from behind self-imposed emotional barricades to tell their stories. They spoke of how they as teens or children had been forced to masturbate or grope their assailants, or had themselves been orally, vaginally or anally raped by their priest.

Indeed, the momentum calling for reform was largely fueled by victims of child sex crimes. Victims swarmed the hallways of the Capitol to urge lawmakers to support reform.

Victims now fear that Pennsylvania's grand jury report - like previous investigations in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown - will fade into the annals of church investigations that have over the years resulted in little consequence.

"I think some people are afraid that Pennsylvania is going to be forgotten. That it's going to be a chapter that goes on the shelf somewhere," said James G. Faluszczak, one of the victims on the stage last year when Shapiro released the findings.

"For those of us who found our voice because of the Pennsylvania investigation there is this implicit fear that somehow our contribution isn't going forward."

The report has led to the conviction of a handful of priests on child sex crime charges. But otherwise, no church official has been arrested or charged as a result of the grand jury report.

"It is disappointing to me that this investigation did not result in any charges against bishops or the institution," said Marci Hamilton, a University of Pennsylvania law professor and victims' advocate. "The church's capacity to keep children at risk is really stunning in this state when you compare how much information you have out there. It's sheer political power. This is just politics. It's really nothing else."

The majority of crimes detailed in the report fell outside the bounds of the statute of limitations, which victims have long said hamper their efforts to seek justice for abuse that happened decades ago.

Shapiro's office has logged 1,862 calls to the clergy abuse hotline: 90 percent of them concern clergy abuse. Many of the leads are under investigation and some have led to charges.

Former priests John Sweeney and David Paulson have been convicted of crimes. John Allen, a former Harrisburg Diocese priest, was arrested in March.

No sitting bishops have been criminally implicated by the report. Church officials, however, have felt its weight.

In the wake of scrutiny generated by the report, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the former Bishop of Pittsburgh, resigned from his post as Archbishop of Washington a few months after the release of the Pennsylvania report.

The report was critical of Wuerl's handling of allegations during his time as bishop of the Pittsburgh diocese. The report mentioned Wuerl 169 times and provided details of times Wuerl intervened to stop priests accused of abuse but also times he transferred those priests to other parishes.

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Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, speaks at a rally in Pennsylvania's Capitol to support legislation he has written to lift time limits for authorities to pursue charges of child sexual abuse, Tuesday, June 12, 2018 in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Marc Levy)

Across the six dioceses at the center of the grand jury investigation, priests continue to be removed from ministry amid credible allegations.

Even the Vatican has come under fire for its inaction in addressing the global crisis. Last fall, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last fall opted to "wait until after the Vatican-convened global meeting on sex abuse" for official guidance.

In May, Pope Francis outlined concrete steps to address clergy abuse, but he has widely been criticized because his measures fail to detail punishments for complicit church leaders. Francis also did not include law enforcement as part of the equation.

SHEPHERDING REFORM

Pennsylvania's lead protagonist in the effort to reform the statute of limitations this year came under fire from victims advocates when he got behind the two House companion bills.

Rep. Mark Rozzi has long had to push back against the constitutionality roadblock of a retroactive window. So this year, when he decided to sidestep that hurdle and back a separate effort to revive expired statutes under a constitutional amendment, victims and advocates felt betrayed.

The Berks County Democrat says he is being realistic.

"You just have to have patience," said Rozzi, himself a survivor of clergy sex abuse. "The system does not change overnight. We have a Republican leadership. We are not in the majority. Anybody that supports sex abuse victims...we have to play their game."

After years of seeing his reform measures fail at the last minute in the Republican-led Senate, Rozzi said he is now determined to set the constitutional argument to rest by asking voters to approve an amendment to the state constitution allowing a retroactive window for victims to sue in civil court.

Rozzi's bill would also remove sovereign immunity in civil claims, meaning that if an institution (specifically, a church or diocese) has known about child sex crimes, it would be held responsible.

Indeed, the states that have passed retroactivity reform have been Democratic led. New York, specifically, for years under a Republican Senate majority, stalemated the reform efforts to child sex crimes. It wasn't until after Democrats gained control of the Senate in last year's midterm election, that the state's Legislature enacted wide reforms.

The reform enacted in Tennessee, a deep Republican state, does not include retroactivity. The Montana state legislature this year opened a one-year retroactive window against institutions and perpetrators who are alive and have been convicted of or admitted to the abuse.

Meanwhile, victims and advocates continue to decry the political might of the Catholic Church, which they say has the financial muscle to sway lawmakers to stall or block reform.

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A parishioner celebrates communion at the Cathedral Church of Saint Patrick in Harrisburg, Pa., Friday, Aug. 17, 2018. Since the grant jury report was released last month, the Pennsylvania Attorney General's office has received more than 1,100 calls to it's clergy sex abuse hotline and several other state's attorneys general have initiated their own investigations. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

In a statement to PennLive, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference said:

"The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference has noted several changes at the diocesan level over the past year. These include the introduction of various compensation funds for survivors of clergy abuse.

The PCC, meanwhile, continues to lobby on a wide variety of issues that we see as important to our Catholic faith such as criminal justice reform, human trafficking, health care, the sanctity and quality of life, poverty, education and many others."

PennLive and The Patriot-News are partners with PA Post.

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