A year later: Pennsylvania report on Catholic sex abuse still making an impact
Mark Rozzi was surprised to receive the first one, and then another letter from the Allentown Catholic Diocese. The letters were a reminder that the deadline to apply for the compensation fund for victims of child sexual abuse was fast approaching.
The 48-year-old Berks County Democrat, who has served in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives since 2013, is among the leading voices for clergy sexual abuse survivors in the state. He has repeatedly recounted his tale of rape at the hands of a priest as a 13-year-old Catholic schoolboy and has worked to get survivors their day in court.
Allentown is among seven dioceses — all but Altoona-Johnstown — that created victim compensation funds last year in the wake of the grand jury report released Aug. 14, 2018, which documented allegations of child sexual abuse by 301 Catholic priests and the subsequent cover-ups by church officials.
Church leaders established the funds amid growing calls for changes in the statute of limitations law that could make the church liable in court for incidents dating back decades.
One year after the release of the report, Rozzi is glad the church is reminding survivors of their right to claim compensation. But he suspects the church is motivated by a desire to clear as many claims as possible to guard against civil lawsuits in the event Rozzi is successful in changing state law to open the courts to old claims.
The lawmaker has heard scores of horrific accounts of abuse from survivors. He said it is a heart-wrenching decision for many who believe they will receive only pennies on the dollar compared to what a court might grant.
Interim reports issued in conjunction with two compensation funds showed 103 survivors in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia received $19.6 million, or an average of $210,000 each, as of the end of May. A similar report from the Scranton Diocese showed it had paid 17 survivors $2.16 million, or an average of $127,000, during that same period.
Conversely, the Erie Diocese paid $2 million this spring to settle a single claim outside of its compensation fund when a survivor whose claims fell within the statute of limitations threatened to go to court.
Settlements like the one Erie paid are out of reach for many survivors because Pennsylvania law bars anyone older than 30 from suing for child sexual abuse.
Nonetheless, the impact of the latest grand jury report has been wide-ranging, including:
• The publication of the names of credibly accused clergy in Catholic dioceses across Pennsylvania and the nation as well as the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the former bishop of Pittsburgh and archbishop of Washington, D.C.
• The reinstatement of a sexual abuse civil lawsuit against the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, which could provide a roadmap to revive older claims and a new strategy that amends the Pennsylvania Constitution to give survivors a new path to file suit.
Leading the way
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who grabbed global headlines with the release of his grand jury report, said he’s “profoundly disappointed” that the state Senate blocked attempts to open a two-year window of opportunity for older survivors to file suit.
Other grand jury recommendations, none of which have become law, included eliminating the criminal statute of limitations for child sexual abuse, barring nondisclosure agreements that would prohibit survivors from contacting law enforcement and clarifying mandated reporter laws.
“Pennsylvania has been a leader in the world in releasing this report, and, in response, two neighboring states have passed the legislation that the grand jury recommended here; 20 state attorneys general have launched investigations, the feds have launched a probe and the pope convened a global summit to address the issue,” Shapiro said.
Others shared his opinion.
“Pennsylvania was a catalyst for other states,” said Thomas P. Doyle, a canon lawyer and early whistleblower on the crisis.
The former priest served as a consultant for Pennsylvania’s grand jury and is consulting with at least eight other states.
“They’re realizing after Pennsylvania did what they did, is it can be done,” he said.
Shapiro said the grand jury report unleashed a wave of new abuse reports. As of Aug. 7, his office had logged 1,862 new complaints since the release of the grand jury report.
“About 90% of them involved Catholic clergy,” he said. All complaints were reviewed and new information was referred to local law enforcement.
“I’m really inspired by the survivors and their incredible strength and their willingness to come forward and share their truth,” Shapiro said.
Others have long since died and still other incidents are outside the criminal statute of limitations.
The Greensburg Diocese has referred 78 clergy abuse complaints to Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck over the last year. To date, no one has been charged. In at least nine instances, the priests named were dead, Peck said.
The Pittsburgh Diocese referred more than 300 new allegations to Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala based on calls it received after the grand jury report was issued.
Zappala spokesman Mike Manko said only one of those referrals has resulted in criminal charges. Hugh Lang, 88, a retired priest, is awaiting trial on charges that he sexually assaulted a 10-year-old boy in 2001 when he was a priest at St. Therese in Munhall.
Survivors’ advocates who have tracked such cases for years credit the Pennsylvania grand jury with changing the landscape within the church.
BishopAccountability.org, an organization dedicated to tracking the Catholic sexual abuse crisis, said officials had released roughly 35 lists naming accused clergy from 2003-18. The count now is more than 130.
“I think most of it’s due to the Pennsylvania grand jury report,” said Terry McKiernan, the website’s co-founder. “There’s now an acceptance of the idea of institutional responsibility and culpability.”
Overcoming the past
Church leaders and various defenders stressed that much of the ugly record of clergy sexual abuse was decades ago and the Catholic Church of today is not the one that brushed aside victims and protected abusers. Those points are amplified by Peter Steinfels, a Fordham University professor emeritus and former New York Times religion writer, in a January essay in Commonweal, “The PA Grand-Jury Report: Not What It Seems. It’s Inaccurate, Unfair and Misleading.”
Many of the accounts of abuse in the report predated 1990, church leaders stressed. Nonetheless, all of the Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania, as well as more than two dozen dioceses and religious orders, released lists of credibly accused clergy.
In the Harrisburg Diocese, Bishop Ronald Gainor ordered all of his predecessors’ names removed from church facilities when the report alleged they withheld information about abuse.
In Pittsburgh, Wuerl agreed to have his name removed from a local high school when families protested after the grand jury report said he had a mixed record on abuse allegations. Wuerl, who was considered among the most powerful figures in the U.S. Catholic Church, resigned two months after the release of the report.
In Greensburg, the diocese removed the late Bishop William Connare’s name from a retreat center after the grand jury report detailed his complicity in moving accused clergy from place to place during his tenure there from 1960 through 1987.
Greensburg Bishop Edward Malesic stressed that the diocese had long ago adopted a zero-tolerance approach to abuse and trained hundreds of volunteers to report abuse.
“That is the church of the past,” he said in response to the grand jury report.
He and Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik embarked on a series of listening tours across their parishes.
In Greensburg, church leaders attribute a 4% decline in Mass attendance to the grand jury report but said there has been no decline in offerings.
In Pittsburgh, Diocese Chancellor Ellen Mady said the church has seen a continuing decline in attendance and giving. She said it is difficult to determine how much of it is attributable to the grand jury report.
Camille Biros of the Feinberg Group, the third-party administrator handling claims, said the Pittsburgh Diocese fund has received 149 claims from survivors and issued determinations on 36 so far. She declined to say how much has been paid.
Diocesan officials have said they will release the entire cost of compensation paid to survivors in January. To date, they said the church has paid $3.5 million in legal fees related to the grand jury.
Although third-party mediators are wrapping up work on diocesan compensation funds, there is no indication that the scandal the grand jury report revealed will fade away completely.
Victim advocates say the names of additional clergy never before made public are likely to surface once the work of the compensation funds is complete.
Any new names would be in addition to the 592 clergy and lay people named by the four grand juries empaneled since 2003 or released directly by diocese officials and religous orders.
Pushing for change
In Harrisburg, Rozzi’s crusade continues on a new path.
He switched gears after Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, insisted a bill creating a two-year window for adult survivors to file suit would not pass muster under the state constitution.
Like Shapiro, who said he has provided lawmakers with legal guidance on how such a bill could pass muster, Rozzi insists such a bill could stand.
He worries that the church and the Pennsylvania Insurance Federation would tie it up on appeals for four or five years.
“And Scarnati and (Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre County) told me straight up if you send the same thing out we’re going to kill it. Knowing that those guys aren’t going to go anywhere, for six or eight years, I said, ‘Let’s call them on it and send them a bill to amend the constitution,’ ” Rozzi said.
Should that bill pass in the Legislature this year and again in 2020, Pennsylvania voters could get a shot at amending the state constitution as early as the 2021 primary.