Putting a price – and a time limit – on a child's well-being

PA Rep. Mark Rozzi (D-Berks), one of the proponents of HB 1947

PA Rep. Mark Rozzi (D-Berks), one of the proponents of HB 1947

HB 1947 sailed through the Pennsylvania House in April. Amid the most hotly contested and heavily covered primary in recent memory – not to mention any number of political scandals, from Kathleen Kane to Rob McCord to Chaka Fattah – you could be forgiven for missing it.

The bill, proposed by Dauphin County Rep. Ron Marsico, a Republican, would eliminate the statute of limitations in criminal prosecutions of childhood sex abuse. The legislation also proposes to increase the age limit for those who were sexually abused as children to bring civil suits against individuals and organizations from 30 to 50, and – in an amendment added by Berks County Rep. Mark Rozzi, a Democrat – those suits could be brought retroactively.

The bill was approved by a 180-15 vote, and has now passed to the state Senate Judiciary Committee for consideration, where it is expected to come to a vote shortly.

It is almost certain that the sudden shift in the legislative winds (similar bills have been presented before and have always gone down in flames) was prompted by the March grand jury investigation into 40 years of clergy sexual abuse in the Altoona-Johnstown diocese, as well as recent allegations that legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno may have been aware of his assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s serial predation as early as 1976.

But there was one additional piece of testimony in favor of the bill: Rozzi’s impassioned, last-minute plea to his fellow legislators, which included a recounting of his own abuse, at age 13, by a Catholic priest.

As the Penn State case highlights, serial abuse and institutional willful ignorance are not restricted to Pennsylvania’s Catholic churches. Still, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference has been a vocal opponent of previous legislative attempts to reform the statute of limitations, marshaling action through its Catholic Advocacy Network.

HB 1947 is on the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference’s action alert list.

Amy Hill, a spokeswoman for the organization, said that while the PCC does not oppose the bill’s elimination of the criminal statute of limitations, it considers the retroactive measure unfair.

“It allows lawsuits to be filed against private institutions for long-past actions, but continues to protect public ones, including schools and juvenile facilities,” she said. “The Catholic Church has a sincere commitment to the emotional and spiritual well-being of individuals who have been impacted by the crime of childhood sexual abuse, no matter how long ago the crime was committed. But bankrupting the ministries of today’s Catholics, like their parishes, schools, and charities, is not justice.”

Both points were echoed in the comments Catholics in the pews (who didn’t want to be named) gave me when I asked their opinions of the bill.

“As I understand the bill, it allows for a cap on the amount of damages a public organization can be held responsible for, but for private institutions there would be no limit,” said a member of one of Coatesville’s parishes. His remarks were a bit pointed, and he seemed testy that I had even asked.

A member of St. Laurence Parish, in Upper Darby, was kinder but no less firm in his feeling that the Catholic Church was being singled out: “My hope is that the culture would take the time to stop and look at what the church is doing to heal wounds rather than seek to give an opportunity for others to keep wounding her (financially). What good can it do? It’s the Year of Mercy!”

Hill also focuses on the work the Catholic Church has done to put aright the wounds of the abuse. “To date,” she said, “Pennsylvania’s dioceses have spent more than $16.6 million on victim/survivor assistance services to provide compassionate support to individuals and families.”

But the optics are a bit tricky.

In 2012, The Associated Press reported that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia (which has been the subject of two grand jury clergy sex abuse investigations) had spent $11.6 million from 2010 to 2012 on legal fees, “most of it on priest sexual abuse cases,” and who knows how much more in the four ensuing years (the Archdiocese did not respond to my request for an updated total).

Moreover, the Philadelphia Archdiocese is only one of the 10 dioceses in the commonwealth the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference represents. Just like that, that $16.6 million in aid to victims statewide doesn’t seem quite so significant or generous a sum.

An audit released by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on May 20 indicated a 35 percent increase in claims of sexual abuse by clergy (838 from July 1, 2014 to June 20, 2015, compared with 620 during the same audit period the year before). According to Religion News Service, the bishops of the conference have said that a large number of those claims were made in the six dioceses that had declared bankruptcy or opened “windows” permitting retroactive lawsuits.

That potential financial hit to the dioceses, of course, is the fear that surrounds opening a window to retroactive suits. But is that what we should be focused on?

For Rozzi, the answer is clearly "no."

“I’m not concerned whether they go bankrupt; my concern is for the victims,” he told me. “It comes down to two words: truth and justice. As a victim, I want the truth to be known and justice served. That’s my reason to see this legislation through.”

He characterizes the other arguments the PCC has put forth in opposition to HB 1947 as disingenuous at best. “Before HB 1947 was being discussed, did you ever hear the church express concern about the statute of limitations with regard to public institutions? No. The Catholic Church knows that public entities are under sovereign immunity (in Pennsylvania’s constitution). They’re using this as a last straw man argument.”

He further maintains that no public entity has the history of collusion to hide sexual abuse that the church has. He’s discovered that the priest who raped him abused 200 other children – beginning in the 1950s. “Let me be honest,” Rozzi said, “the difference between the Catholic Church and public high schools is that they put the (abusing) priests back into dioceses – you don’t see superintendents moving the (abusing) teachers from district to district.” 

At the time Rozzi was abused, he would have had to bring civil suit against his abuser within two years, and criminal charges within three – something he knows he was too traumatized and too young to do – and so he’s focused on the statute of limitations as a means to offer some measure of justice to other child victims.

The Bryn Mawr Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse makes a point of reminding its supporters that the bottom line for the legislation has to be about justice for the victims, and making sure that the protections afforded to children are ironclad. HB 1947, the organization’s action alert states, “puts predators on notice that there will be NO time limits when they will feel safe from being identified and prosecuted if they sexually abuse a child.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops audit found that $153.6 million was spent nationwide in dioceses and religious orders on settlements and expenses related to childhood sex abuse claims last year.

That is an almost inconceivably large number.

But then I remember those lines from “Erin Brockovich,” where the lawyers are beginning to outline the terms of what might be fair compensation for very real damages sustained by very real people: “I want you to think real hard about what your spine is worth, Mr. Walker. Or what you might expect someone to pay you for your uterus, Ms. Sanchez. Then you take out your calculator and you multiply that number by a hundred.”

And so I swap  “spine” in that sentence with “your childhood faith and innocence,” and “uterus” with “your child’s mental health,” and suddenly, the money spent to date doesn’t seem nearly enough.