HARRISBURG – A push to allow victims of clergy sex abuse the right to sue for damages in old cases is barreling toward a vote, with support from key state officials.
The House last spring opened a window allowing victims of old sex crimes to sue for damages. The window was snapped closed by the Senate, which voted only to extend the statute of limitations on those cases moving forward.
Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks County, who has pushed to allow victims to seek justice against their molesters and church leaders who’ve covered up the crimes, said he believes House lawmakers will revive the retroactivity clause, giving the Senate another chance to pass it this fall.
“This is not just a Catholic clergy problem,” Rozzi said at a Capitol press conference Tuesday. “But the church has become the face of institutional wrongdoing.”
The effort is being renewed about six months after a grand jury examining the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese revealed sex abuse allegations involving more than 50 priests from the 1940s through the 1990s, with a concerted effort by church leaders to shield the priests from prosecution.
Former Attorney General Kathleen Kane called for a rewrite of the statute of limitations law based on the Altoona-Johnstown revelations.
She also created a hotline for victims to report abuse, and in September six other dioceses in the state received subpoenas for records. Those dioceses include: Allentown, Erie, Harrisburg, Greensburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton.
Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery County, said he was inspired to support reforms to the statute of limitations when learning that a longtime friend had been molested by a priest.
“We have a duty” to fix the law, Vereb said. “And the church has a duty to get the hell out of our way.”
In a written statement, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference said the church doesn’t oppose forward-looking changes to the law.
“We can all agree that anyone involved with the sexual abuse of a child should be severely punished by the law. Sexual predators should be locked behind bars and removed from society so they cannot hurt anyone else,” said Amy B. Hill, the Catholic Conference spokeswoman.
But the church’s lobby maintains that retroactive changes would “conflict with the Pennsylvania Constitution,” she said.
“No matter the final resolution … the Catholic Church will continue to keep its sincere commitment to the emotional well-being of individuals who have been impacted by the crime of childhood sexual abuse, no matter how long ago the crime was committed,” she added.
The statute of limitations for criminal charges is 12 years after the victim turns 18, if the victim was born before 2002. For victims born after 2002, the allows them to seek criminal charges up to the age of 50. People abused as children have until the age of 30 to file civil lawsuits under current law. Rozzi’s bill would eliminate the statute of limitations for criminal charges and extend the civil statute of limitations to the age of 50.
Rep. Frank Burns, D-Cambria County, said he began to fight for the rights of clergy sex abuse victims after a grand jury report detailed abuse by priests and decades of cover-ups in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese.
Burns was joined at the Capitol press conference by Johnstown native Shaun Dougherty, who has identified himself as the victim of sex abuse by a priest.
Burns said, when he was contacted by Dougherty, “My heart dropped.”
“I was just speechless,” he said.
At the time, Dougherty said he didn’t want to publicly reveal his story unless there was a good chance that the law change would pass, Burns said.
Dougherty said he only came forward because he wanted to help change the law.
“I’m not here for money,” Dougherty said. “I’m here so that no other child has to stand here at the age of 46, in 30 or 40 years.”
Dougherty said he believes church leaders knew that the priest who abused him was engaged in misconduct.
In 1984, the priest was abruptly transferred in the middle of a school year, he said. The priest was removed from the ministry in 2012 but has never been charged, he added.
Dougherty could have sought to have criminal charges brought against the priest, or sued the church, when he first told his family about the molestation in 1991. At the time, he was too focused on coming to grips with what happened to think about pursuing justice, he said.
Victims’ advocates say the delay is typical.
“It’s a fact that victims wait decades to come forward,” said Delilah Rumburg, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape.
State laws regarding lawsuits from child sex abuse cover-ups need to be adjusted, she said, to accommodate the fact that victims may not feel comfortable seeking justice until many years pass.
Advocates for changing the law include the acting attorney general, both candidates running to become attorney general, and Gov. Tom Wolf. All say they support statute of limitations reforms that would allow victims to seek justice for old crimes through civil lawsuits.
“As governor of Pennsylvania, I am committed to expanding the ability of victims to come forward without fear and hold their abusers accountable, including supporting the removal of criminal statutes of limitation for child sex abuse,” Wolf said in a prepared statement.
Sen. John Rafferty, R-Chester County, the Republican candidate for attorney general, said lawmakers who question whether the state can change the law looking backward are confused. They point to laws that suggest it’s inappropriate to make a crime out of conduct that has been legal in the past.
Child sex crimes and protecting child predators have never been legal, he said.
A campaign spokesman for Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro, the Democratic candidate for attorney general, said he also believes the backward-looking change would be legal.
In a letter distributed by advocates at the Tuesday rally, Shapiro said the laws now “undermine the rights of survivors.”