Pa. Lawmakers Fight to Reform Statute of Limitations on Sexual Abuse

Rep. Mark Rozzi (D-Berks) speaks out about SOL reform in Pennsylvania.

Standing on the steps of the Capitol in Harrisburg last week, advocates and legislators announced they’re doubling down on the battle to reform Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations on child sex abuse.

In Pennsylvania, statute of limitation reform bills have been stalled, buried and blocked for many years. Most recently, Rep. Ronald Marsico (R-Dauphin) and Rep. Thomas Caltagirone (D-Berks) bent parliamentary procedures into Cirque de Soleil-worthy formations in order to defeat last year’s bills, ultimately passing watered-down versions that accomplished far less than the original sponsors proposed. The criminal statute of limitations was abolished and the statute was extended 50 years old for civil charges, yes — but the initiative that’s far more important to advocates, and far more controversial, was completely struck from the law as passed: the “window” provision. That’s a temporary window of time, usually one or two years from the date enacted, wherein victims of a crime can file civil charges even though the statute of limitation has run out.

A civil window is vital because raising (or abolishing) the age on a statute of limitation does not allow grandfathering in. It’s confusing, but if a person who was abused as a kid didn’t file charges before the arbitrary statute age of 18, or 23, or 50 years old isn’t suddenly allowed to prosecute when the age limit is upped or abolished. So effectively, raising the age and even now abolishing it entirely only helps the future generation–and criminal windows are unconstitutional.

The champion of the cause is 79-year-old Rep. Louse Bishop (D-Philadelphia), who, in the wake of the Penn State scandal, revealed last fall that her stepfather had raped her starting from when she was 12 years old.

“I thought it almost divine that I was sent into the House of Representatives to have the opportunity to introduce law that would allow us to take care of victims,” she said last week — “older victims, those who had been sexually abused and never were able to talk about it.”

The process has not been easy for the 79-year-old politician and minister. “Ask anyone who has been abused and they can tell you the pain,” she told the crowd last week. “Most of them are not as fortunate as I. They’re not able to go get help if they need it. They can’t afford it.”

Advocates of creating a window for child sex abuse charges point out that it often takes decades — in Bishop’s case, 66 years — for victims to come forward. They say the law as it’s currently written is designed to protect predators, not victims. Indeed, evidence unearthed during both the Penn State and Philadelphia Archdiocese scandals shows that savvy serial predators seek to exploit the SOL to escape prosecution.

Former Philadelphia D.A. Lynne Abraham oversaw the 2005 grand jury report on the Philadelphia Archdiocese. Not one priest was charged as a result of that report due to the statute of limitations. And as PW reported last February, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference has mounted the biggest opposition to SOL reform in the state.

Last week, Abraham declared her support for SOL reform.“This issue is not going away,” she said. But reform won’t be easy: “There are going to be powerful voices which oppose this. Our Archbishop Chaput is going to be the leading opponent against this.”

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput was assigned to the Philadelphia Archdiocese in late 2011 after leading a successful campaign to squash similar SOL bills in Denver, Colorado. Church leaders have been fighting window legislation around the country ever since the first window was installed in California in 2003 and subsequently, 550 lawsuits were filed. They routinely characterize efforts to establish a civil window as prejudice against the Roman Catholic Church.

The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote of Chaput’s meeting with its editorial board in 2011: “Chaput told the board any changes in Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations would have to be ‘for the good of the community as a whole,’ and that he ‘would not want the Catholic Church treated any differently.’

He was referring to the fact that by default, window legislation applies to private, but not public, institutions. As the law stands now, this is true: Public institutions such as schools are protected under the legal concept of sovereign immunity. (Penn State could be sued, however, because it is only a state-related school, not a state school.) But there’s an important point that often goes unnoted: Pennsylvania legislators supporting SOL reform have also proposed within the window bill that child sex abuse be added to the list of exemptions to sovereign immunity — thereby applying the window to private and public institutions alike.

Newly elected Rep. Mark Rozzi (D-Philadelphia), long a civilian advocate of SOL reform, was also on hand at the Capitol last week to declare his continued dedication as a legislator. For Rozzi, the issue is personal:

“For me, my abuse started in 1983 when [a priest] started grooming me. Everything came to a halt for me, though, on March 26 in 2009, when my second childhood friend committed suicide. If I told you the story of the first one, you wouldn’t believe it — you would just shake your head and say, how is this possible? I can’t even go into that. But the second friend who committed suicide, Artie, I felt that I’m particularly to blame for what happened. I constantly remind myself: If I had the courage to come forward earlier to talk about this… I could have possibly saved him. And I didn’t have that courage, and it kills me to this day. And I promise I will never turn my back on the children of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania because of it.”

As Rozzi spoke, a man standing behind him on the stairs clutched a photograph of a framed portrait of a high school boy to his chest. The photo is of a boy who overdosed in 2006, after a civil suit against a priest was thrown out of court. Next, another man came forward, stood tall behind the podium, and detailed his abuse for the first time. “I am Robert Nelson,” he began. “I was repeatedly sexually assaulted as a teenager… Today, I will be counted and I will be heard… today, those who support this legislation stand with the children of this commonwealth, and those who oppose it, stand willfully stand… with the pedophiles.”

An attorney and advocates spoke, recalling that their trauma at realizing that the priests who baptized their children were later suspected pedophiles.

Rep. Michelle Brownlee (D-Philadelphia) was brief and to the point. “There should not be a statute of limitation on childhood sex abuse in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, because it kills children,” she said.

As each speaker took a turn behind the podium, representatives from groups supporting SOL reform stood silently on the stairs behind them: Justice4PAKids, Catholics4Change, BishopAccountability.org, Voice of the Faithful.org, The National Center for Victims of Crime, Stop the Silence.

“What is PA waiting for?” asked Jeff Dion of National Center for Victims of Crime. “After all the grand jury reports, after Penn State, after the release of the Boy Scout secret files, after the criminal convictions of church officials who knew that they were not going enough to protect kids… what is PA waiting for?

“[Pedophiles] know they don’t need to keep kids quiet forever,” he said. “Just long enough.”

7 Responses to “ Pa. Lawmakers Fight to Reform Statute of Limitations on Sexual Abuse ”

  1. Michael Skiendzielewski says:

    When will our leadership, public and private, religious and secular, stand up for ALL OF OUR CHILDREN here in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania? There is no other issue in the public forum that is more important and devastating than the sexual abuse of our children, regardless of where it occurs.
    How can our leadership be so selfish and think of themselves, of their institutions, and deny to our youngest citizens what they are entitled to……a safe home, community and school,….safe from sexual abuse and predation. These legislative proposals ensure that future sexual abusers of our children will be held accountable, both civilly and criminally, regardless of when the victims are able to come forward.
    There is no middle ground…..one is either FOR the children or FOR the perpetrators. My years of advocacy with this issue since the release of the first Grand Jury Report in Philadelphia in late 2005 has taught me one thing…….the Silence (in response to the horror, devastation, humiliation, shame and life-destruction of childhood sexual abuse)from various Philadelphia area Catholic colleges and universities is indeed DEAFENING.

  2. Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh says:

    As a physician who has met many who have been sexually abused by priests, and as one who was sexually assaulted myself by a Carmelite priest when I was a young doctor, I want to praise Attorney Lynn Abraham and everyone who have had the courage to stand with the victims of clergy sexual abuse.

    As a Roman Catholic, it disgusts me that it is the leaders of my church who have been doing everything to block reform and to block accountability. The Pope and others must become accountable.

    Sincerely, Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh, Chicago, Illinois

  3. Michael McDonnell says:

    In the sixth grade of my primary education at St. Titus Parish in Norristown, we were taught that the hands raised over us in blessing represented Christ here on Earth. Never did I imagine it then and struggle to believe it today, that those hands would abuse any child of God. I was abused by two priests from the same parish between my 6th and 8th grade years. One of whom the Archdiocesan Review Board in 2006 deemed a credible occurrence and one didn’t meet the “ criteria” of abuse, but was morally and grave in action.

    I applaud State Represntaitves Bishop, McGeehan, Rozzi and Santersario for their leadrship in supporting this reform and I challenge every elected official in harrisburg to do the same. Ask yourself, “What if this was me, my family, a friend…what would I do”! I am Michael McDonnell and I am in recovery and a survivor!

  4. Tara Murtha says:

    Michael,

    Thank you for your courage to speak out.

  5. mike ference says:

    How do you cover-up crimes committed by Catholic priests in the Pittsburgh Diocese?
    It’s simple – Just Call 911

    By Mike Ference

    Sometime in the first quarter of 1987, former Catholic priest Father John Wellinger, pastor of Holy Spirit Church in West Mifflin, PA, part of the Pittsburgh Diocese, fed a drug to Greg Witkowski, a teenager attending the University of Pittsburgh. The crime took place in Witkowski’s apartment that he shared with his brother, also a student at Pitt. The drug knocked the youth out for hours, when he awoke, he intuitively called 911. Sadly, that’s when his real nightmare began.

    Running down the stairs and into the street to meet the paramedics, Witkowski would be whisked away to Presbyterian University Hospital emergency room (now University of Pittsburgh Medical Center). He would be admitted, but never examined by a doctor. Keep in mind this young man was given some sort of drug, administered by a lay person, with very bad intentions, according to Witkowski, he also consumed some alcohol, yet, no doctor wanted to be bothered by this type of case.

    Why?

    Could it be that the call to 911, answered by Pittsburgh paramedics, was the first step in alerting the Pittsburgh Diocese that one of their own had harmed another? Would diocesan officials then alert hospital officials to avoid contact with the patient?
    Or, is it more reasonable to assume that medical personnel, sworn to care for and help others in need would just say we can’t help this guy? I don’t think so. An emergency room doctor, spending so much money on med school and with so much to lose, would never make that call.

    Then why did Greg Witkowski leave Presbyterian University Hospital that day and receive no medical attention? Who paid the bill? These are all questions that I have asked of Paul Woods, Vice President & Chief Communications Officer at UPMC. To verify my story, Mr. Woods can be contacted at 412-647-6647, his cell phone number is 412-352-2058.

    To verify my story with another person feel free to contact former city of Clairton Public Safety Director William Scully. Scully gave me hand-written notes and plenty of information that was almost identical to the information given to me by Greg Witkowski concerning the assault on him in 1987 by Father John Wellinger. I still have the original notes Scully gave to me in the presence of another witness. These notes can be tested, I’m told, to determine the actual age of the paper and writing instruments.
    That’s a story for another day. To contact Bill Scully call ALCOSAN, one of the most corrupt government agencies in Pittsburgh, 412-766-4810. Scully is the director of security. Which means; he guards poop.

    If Paul Woods and Bill Scully refuse to answer your questions, I’ll send you a copy of the notes Bill Scully gave to me, and a transcript of an interview I have with a woman from Holy Spirit Church who went to the Pittsburgh Diocese to warn them about Father John Wellinger. She was turned away and labeled a gossip-hound.

  6. mike ference says:

    Is Pennsylvania a Pro-Pedophile?

    By Mike Ference
    Examiner
    June 11, 2009

    http://www.examiner.com/examiner/x-12613-Pittsburgh-Independent-Examiner~y2009m6d11-Is-Pennsylvania-a-propedophile

    Now that we know an entire country (Ireland) permitted dysfunctional sex freaks, disguised as Catholic clergy, to torture and molest innocent children for decades, maybe, it’s time to expose the same heinous crimes in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

    Former PA State Rep. Lisa Bennington, D-Allegheny County, held a press conference on May 12, 2008 in Harrisburg, PA to discuss legislation known as the Child Victim’s Act of Pennsylvania, which addressed statute of limitations and identifying sex abusers.

    If the bill had passed, it would have changed the age at which a civil suit could have been filed from until the accuser is 30 to 50, bringing the civil statute of limitations in line with the criminal statute. The bill would also have suspended the civil statute of limitations for two years in child sex abuse cases in which the statute had expired so that people over the age limit could file a suit. And it would have allowed the filing of such actions against child sex abusers and their enablers in both public and private institutions.

    According to Bennington, it was the private institutions (like in Ireland) where offenders were allowed to move on and continue with their lives. “Their victims left behind to pick up the pieces, never getting their day in court and or a chance to see justice carried out. They live with this horrific crime for the rest of their lives,” she pointed out.

    A 2005 Philadelphia Grand Jury Report uncovered 63 priests in the Philadelphia archdiocese who had abused hundreds of children over several decades. In some cases, archdiocese leaders intentionally concealed the abuse to protect the church.

    And Bennington stressed, her bill did not target the Catholic Church. Rather, “it pertains to all religious institutions, public schools, youth groups and any organization where child sex abuse has occurred. It would have given all Pennsylvania victims their fundamental right to hold those accountable that afflicted or allowed the abuse to occur.

    Sounds reasonable and seems like a good thing. Similar legislation has passed in California and Delaware in recent years. In California, about 1,000 victims came forward and 300 predators were identified. Yet, there’s one PA lawmaker who strongly opposed the legislation and never even intended to give the bill a hearing.

    State Rep. Thomas R.Caltagirone D., (Berks County), the House Judiciary Committee chairman, said the proposed bill was driven by victims’ desire to win large legal payouts. Caltagirone goes on to say the bill is all about money, not about justice.

    Ironically, Caltagirone was quick to vote with fellow legislators for a 50 percent increase in their pensions in 2001 and the infamous middle of the night pay raise in 2005. The state rep along with other lawmakers chose to take the self-induced pay grab immediately in unvouchered expenses. Many PA residents felt this made the elected officials look like money-hungry crooks, as it was eventually declared unconstitutional.

    As expected, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference deplored the bill. Choosing to continue to protect perverted priests, rather than seek justice. Likewise, the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania was also against the bill. And, while Caltagirone officially declared the legislation dead, his puppy-protection HB 39 bill – which would forbid dog owners from performing surgery on their pups – is still very much alive.

    As someone who has been investigating clergy abuse in Pennsylvania for almost 20 years, this writer can’t help but think that something is amiss in the commonwealth – just like things were amiss in Ireland.

    On the eastern side of Pennsylvania the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office issued a scathing report on the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for the high level of sexual abuse among Catholic priests and the cover ups and the reassigning of credibly accused Catholic priests by Cardinals Anthony Bevilacqua and John Krol and their aides. It should be noted that Bevilacqua first served as Bishop of the Pittsburgh Diocese before his transfer to Philadelphia. Insiders claim Bevilacqua left his successor, Donald Wuerl, quite a mess.

    For example, while Bevilacqua was still assigned to the Pittsburgh Diocese he agreed to place Fr. John P. Connor, an admitted child molester first within the Pittsburgh Diocese and later, after Bevilacqua took over in Philadelphia Fr. Connor was assigned there. According to testimony in the Philadelphia Grand Jury the arrangement was based on a “tradition of bishops helping bishops.” Sadly, Fr. Connor went on to abuse others and Bevilacqua was found to be a liar according to the grand jury report.

    One has to wonder why the Pittsburgh Diocese voluntarily settled with 32 alleged survivors of clergy abuse. $1.25 million for crimes the Pittsburgh Diocese will never have to admit ever occurred. The settlement would not tarnish the stellar reputation of Archbishop Donald Wuerl who never had to pay a dime of diocese money to any clergy abuse victims during his tenure as bishop in the Pittsburgh Diocese.

    Oddly enough, an underling – so to speak – Auxiliary Bishop Bradley reconciled the situation, only weeks before Bishop David Zubik was to be installed as the new leader of the diocese. So it seems everything fell into place.

    32 survivors received a few bucks, the diocese is off the hook for any future civil or maybe even criminal suits based on the settlement. Wuerl continues to do in Washington D.C. whatever it is that Archbishops do and Zubik was allowed to get a fresh start in the Pittsburgh Diocese without the interference of those civil suits that were resting in limbo for several years.

    The settling of the civil suits certainly allowed for an impressive and dignified installation of Bishop Zubik, no hecklers or demonstrators from any groups with compassion for children sexually abused by Catholic priests.

    And, although I have no proof, nor anyway to calculate, I would be willing to bet the farm that more money was spent on Zubik’s festivities than was awarded to 32 survivors of alleged abuse by Catholic priests from the Pittsburgh Diocese. No big deal, the worst is over.

    Unless of course, somewhere down the road – maybe a year, a few months, a couple of weeks, or perhaps in the next few days – information turns up that the cases of sexual abuse actually occurred and that cover ups were the norm in the Pittsburgh Diocese just like cover ups and shifting priests from parish to parish was the norm in the archdiocese of Philadelphia.

    Anyone with a little common sense would be concerned that a man of the cloth might be tempted to hide crimes of clergy sexual abuse of young children only on the eastern side of the commonwealth of PA and not the western side as well.

    That’s a lot of ifs ands or buts – only time will tell if Pennsylvania is indeed a pro-pedophile state. For now, we can only laud former Rep Bennington for trying to make a difference in the lives of those sexually, physically and emotionally abused as children; as for Rep. Caltagirone – one politician who obviously cares more about puppies than children – maybe it’s time for the law maker to rollover and play dead.

  7. Brian J Smatko Sr says:

    In February 1985 my mother died suddenly and I was 17 years old and a senior in high school. I was referred to the guidance office for help , within a month the guidance counsellor was repeatedly sexually molesting me inside the school and eventually started taking me to his home under the guise of counseling. I was mortified and wanted to commit suicide on many occasions but was too afraid to follow through. So, I left the area and joined the Marine Corps and suppressed the events that occurred but could never escape the shame and self hatred I felt. I eventually got married and had 2 wonderful sons who attended the same school district that I was assaulted in, always telling myself that I was the only one but told myself that if i ever thought my sons were In any kind of jeopardy from this man I would have to come forward. In 2012 my oldest son was graduating and my wife and I were informed that he would not receive his diploma and the only one we could talk to about it was the Superintendent of the school district……who is the same man that molested me….all the feelings of shame and self hatred came back in a flood of emotions….. I finally came forward to my family about what happened but began to sink into a deep depression , afraid to talk about it and ashamed that my family would look at me differently. In August of 2013 I finally went to counseling and when I began to open up I couldn’t stop. I was finally able to understand that I was a victim of a pedophyle and I did nothing wrong and decided to try and stop this pedophyle who is now working for free as the school district Superintendent , I went to the district attorney, children and youth and a slew of attorneys who ultimately told me “they believe me” but nothing can be done because of the statute of limitations….. This man is still in a school, around children with free unfettered access to kids and they have the educational complex named after him….and Nothing can be done….because of this statute. Pennsylvania children are at risk….and legislators only care about protecting him.

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