In the aftermath of a state grand jury report finding hundreds of Catholic priests abused thousands of children since the 1940s — and church officials covered it up — community and church officials had their own response as legislators vowed to strengthen laws against childhood sexual abusers.
On Tuesday, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro released the report that identified more than 300 Roman Catholic priests who sexually abused more than 1,000 children over decades with acts ranging from groping and masturbation to anal, oral and vaginal rape.
This grand jury was convened by Shapiro’s office in 2016 for the purpose of reviewing cases involving the Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton dioceses.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia issued its own statement upon the release of the grand jury’s findings.
“The Attorney General’s investigation and subsequent grand jury report involving six Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania has been broad and the content has been difficult to read. The material is painful for everyone, most especially survivors of sexual abuse and their loved ones. We
deeply regret their pain and remain focused on a path toward healing. It is important to note that the archdiocese was not subject to the grand jury investigation and is not part of this report. However, that fact in no way eases our responsibility and longstanding efforts to ensure the safety of children and families in our Church environments.”
However, a 2005 grand jury convened by Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham, combined with another grand jury in 2011, found more than 60 priests in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia abused dozens of victims. Many had ties to Delaware County.
The archdiocese has since developed its own extensive protocol involving those who interact with children and the reporting of any inappropriate incident.
Now, state legislators are posed to consider SB 261, which has passed the state Senate by a 48-2 vote and has gone to the House for consideration. It would allow victims of childhood sexual abuse to file a civil claim until they are 50 years old. They currently have to do so by the age of 30.
And any criminal statue of limitations would be lifted, allowing victims to file criminal charges at any age. This would only apply to any abuse occurring after the bill became law. There is currently no retroactivity in the legislation.
Both state Sens. Tom Killion, R-9 of Middletown, and Tom McGarrigle, R-26 of Springfield, voted in favor of the bill.
It also has support from state Rep. Jamie Santora, R-163 of Upper Darby.
After Tuesday’s grand jury report release, he tweeted, “I will be supporting SB261. I hope we can move this legislation in September. We should vote on it and get it on the governor’s desk for his signature.”
State Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-126 of Berks County, has also sponsored HB 612, It would eliminate the statute of limitations on both civil and criminal litigation for childhood sexual abuse survivors. It would also provide a two-year civil window so those who would have the opportunity to bring suit for incidents that occurred in the past.
Such motions have support from state Auditor General Eugene DiPasquale.
“My heart goes out to the victims who suffered abuse at the hands of church leaders,” he said. “It’s incomprehensible that a child should endure such abuse, and then have that abuse covered up by those more concerned with protecting their own interests than those of innocent victims.”
In commending the attorney general, the grand jury and victims who shared their stories, DiPasquale said it’s time to eliminate deadlines on such crimes.
“Today I am calling on every single member of the General Assembly to immediately end the statute of limitations that I have supported since my days as a legislator,” he said. “It is long past time to enact this change and the reforms introduced by Rep. Mark Rozzi so that childhood and adult victims of sexual abuse can finally have a chance to see the monsters who abused them brought to justice in a court of law.”
And, in fact, advocates have noted that sexual abuse reaches beyond the Catholic Church.
According to the Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services reported more than 3,400 cases of childhood sexual abuse in 2017 alone. In Delaware County, state officials reported 133 substantiated allegations of child abuse last year and of them, 47, or 35 percent, involved sexual abuse of children.
In his legislation, Rozzi, who was abused at the hands of a priest as a child, said that only 1 in 10 childhood victims come forward.