Sex abuse reform bill faces opposition from church; local pols feel heat

“The church has been sending out a lot of misinformation,” Rozzi said. “It’s insulting. I think it’s also damaging to the Church – the image that you’re willing to put pedophiles and the institution that protects them above children.”

6/11/16 | Kathleen E. Carey | Delaware County Daily Times

In its efforts to squash a bill allowing victims of sexual abuse more time to seek civil recourse, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has launched a campaign that some state representatives say includes lies, misinformation and threats.

The church maintains this legislation could have devastating “impacts” on parishes and services as it encourages parishioners to lobby against HB 1947, extending the time an abuse victim can file a civil suit from when they turn 30 years old to 50 years old and removing immunity for organizations found to be grossly negligent.

In a fact sheet distributed at churches regarding the bill last weekend, the archdiocese states the church does not oppose the elimination of the criminal statute of limitations, but it does the civil component due to a lower standard of proof and the impact it would have on the archdiocese.

The bill passed the House of Representatives by a 180-15 vote in April and the state Senate Judiciary Committee plans to hold a hearing on the matter Monday. At that hearing state Attorney General Kathleen Kane is expected to make a statement, and state Solicitor General Bruce L. Castor Jr. will testify.

Last weekend, a letter from Archbishop Charles Chaput opposing the legislation was distributed or made available in English and in Spanish at 219 parishes. Archdiocese officials said information about the work the church has done on prevention and responding to victims’ needs was handed out at that time.

In it, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia maintains that the bill is “destructive legislation being advanced as a good solution,” that is a “clear attack on the Church, her parishes and her people.” It maintained that private institutions are being treated differently than public ones.

Some local parishes, including St. Rose of Lima in Eddystone, mentioned the issue in their parish bulletin, and specifically noted the votes of local legislators, an act which church officials say was informing their parishioners.

Under the heading “Just So You Are Aware,” the note in the bulletin stated: “State Representative (Nick) Miccarelli, (R-162, of Ridley Park,) voted in favor of House Bill 1947 which states that private institutions can be sued as far as 40 years ago for millions of dollars, while public institutions may not be sued for any crimes committed in the past.”

It also made a correlation, “Our Parish has more than 1,800 families and more than 3,500 individuals. Financially, as you can see, we are doing well. If (H)ouse Bill 1947 is not passed we will continue to be financially stable.”

Through an assistant, the Rev. Gerald Canavan, pastor of St. Rose, directed comment to Ken Gavin, director of Communications for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Miccarelli, a long-time St. Rose parishioner, posted a response on his Facebook page.

“This statement, printed in the church bulletin, is patently untrue,” he wrote.

“HB 1947 will allow those who have been molested as children to have their day in court,” he wrote. “(I)t allows those people who are raped as children more time to face those who raped them … We also believe that this bill would let child predators across Pennsylvania know that they will not be free from punishment if they simply run out the clock.”

In an interview after the posting, Miccarelli said, “Our goal here is to help victims, not attack the Church.”

A multi-tour combat Iraq War veteran, the state representative said he was moved by the testimony given by fellow state Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-126, of Berks County, prior to the vote on HB 1947.

In it, Rozzi outlined his own story of abuse as well as the suicide of a close friend.

“I have this tremendous guilt that I did not speak up sooner,” he said on the House floor. “That, if I did, could I have saved other lives?”

Rozzi said when he did, more than 40 boys from his parochial school identified as having been abused by one particular priest.

“I was abused in ’84,” he said. “And the day that I ran out of that rectory with my childhood friend, he threatened us … ‘We better keep our mouth shut or he’s going to destroy our family.’”

Rozzi continued.

“Put yourself in my position as a 13-year-old boy, what you would do,” he said. “What would you do? Would you go home and tell your parents that yeah, he had us drinking alcohol, showing us pornos, teaching us about sex, taking pictures of our privates ….

“When I did run out of that shower and I looked at my friend, we just ran,” he said. “We picked up our clothes and ran out that door and ran downstairs as we were getting dressed. People in that rectory had to know what was going on. Nobody cared.”

He said he hid in the bushes on the way home and waited because he was afraid the priest was coming after him.

“I have struggled every day of my life,” he said, adding he is ashamed, embarrassed and feels guilty. “All I want is justice. I want justice for all of my friends who have been sexually abused. They knew what they did. They covered it up. Now they need to be held accountable. That’s the bottom line.”

The issue of sexual abuse is long-standing with the Catholic Church.

A 2014 study commissioned by the Church itself found more than 4,000 American priests implicated in sexual abuse allegations impacting more than 10,000 children over the past five decades.

More recently, in March, a Pennsylvania grand jury determined hundreds of students in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown had been sexually abused as far back as 40 years by a minimum of 50 priests.

Grand jury reports issued in Philadelphia in 2005 and 2011 found dozens of victims of more than 60 priests in this archdiocese beginning in the 1940s. More than 40 of these suspected pedophiles had connections to Delaware County.

The issue hit movie screens in the Academy Award-winning film “Spotlight,” which tells the story of the scandal in the Archdiocese of Boston, where Boston Globe reporters found almost 90 priests had sexually abused children and that the archdiocese had concealed it.

Here, over the weekend of June 4-5, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia began its campaign to block passage of HB 1947, emphasizing the financial burden it would place on the church. Before being assigned to Philadelphia, Chaput was involved in a similar effort in Colorado to defeat similar expansion of statutes.

However, local state representatives who supported the legislation, believe the church went beyond advocating against the bill.

Miccarelli, who said he was notified of the bulletin passage by a friend, said he felt absolute disbelief.

“I was absolutely baffled when I read it,” the Republican said. “The intent is to allow people more time to come forward to make claims against child rapists, child molesters in the public sector and the private sector.”

After speaking to his House colleagues, he said he “realized the lies about this bill are being preached at more places than St. Rose.”

He said at least a dozen fellow reps, both Republican and Democrat, Catholic and non-Catholic, shared similar stories with him.

“It became abundantly clear to me that not all of these priests on their own could have conjured up the mistruths about our efforts to protect victims of child rape,” Miccarelli said. “These lies, distortions, bully tactics and downright threats must have come from a coordinated effort by some higher level of the church.”

State Rep. Jamie Santora, R-163, of Upper Darby, was sitting in the pews at St. Dorothy Church in Drexel Hill when the priest read a statement, which he said was handled professionally.

However, he said, intimidation tactics had been used by others.

“There have been threats made to other people,” Santora said, citing an email which was copied to him. “The management of the church has said people like myself and others … that we betrayed our church and there’s consequences for that. That blew my mind.”

Santora has advocated on behalf of the Catholic Church, including successfully lobbying for receipt of $4 million for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in conjunction with Pope Francis’ visit.

He said he had no issue with the church taking a position on the legislation.

“I actually encourage constituents to come out and tell me how they feel about a bill,” Santora said. “I want to know if they support it or if they don’t support it and why. I’m not complaining. They have to advocate, but don’t threaten.”

State Rep. Martina White, R-170, of Philadelphia, said she was disinvited to at least two events at Catholic parishes after she cast her supporting vote.

“It was really just disheartening and upsetting,” she said, declining to name the parishes. “I’ve been a Catholic all my life. I went to Catholic grade school and Catholic high school. It hurts when you feel like you get cut off from a community you’ve always been a part of.”

She said she would have liked to have a dialogue about this prior to her vote, as is typical in legislative affairs.

“It would’ve been nice to hear from folks before we took the vote,” White said, “just to make sure they are siding with victims as well. The vote I took was really to make sure that I was giving victims the opportunity to come forward when they feel most comfortable.”

Miccarelli agreed.

“The pope went to the U.S. House of Representatives and my parish priest can’t give me a call about a bill?” he said.

Gavin, director of Communications for the Archdiocese, said conversations did take place.

“There have been countless meetings between those representing the church and legislators regarding concerns with this legislation,” he said. “If anyone is claiming that the church ignored this legislation for months and didn’t try to express its concerns in a timely way, that’s a false claim.”

He added that he was not aware of “any situations involving a pastor lambasting an elected official from the pulpit and they weren’t directed to do so.”

Gavin said priests were solely sharing public information about legislation.

“The archdiocese has frequently asked pastors to make information available to parishioners about various legislative items and to encourage contact with elected officials,” he said. “I’ve never seen such an overwhelming and immediate response from the faithful on any issue like this before though … It’s not a lie or a mistruth to share public information or indicate how the same kind of legislation has been devastating in other states.”

He gave the example of Delaware, where, according to volunteer attorney Stephen Jenkins, who represented the church there, two schools closed and 10 percent of diocesan employees were laid off after a similar bill took effect. Jenkins also said Catholic Charities, cemeteries and parishes had to contribute “millions” to settle the lawsuits there after similar legislation was passed.

Gavin said the archdiocese has had more extensive efforts on preventing child sexual abuse, primarily through education and background checks, prior to changes in state law a few years ago and in some cases, exceeds those requirements.

“No organization in Pennsylvania has done more to provide assistance for survivors and their families than the Archdiocese of Philadelphia,” he said. “Since 2002, the archdiocese has dedicated over $13 million to provide victim assistance to individuals and families, including counseling, providing medication, eliminating barriers to travel and day care, and providing vocational assistance as well as other forms of support.”

He outlined the archdiocesan prevention efforts, including more than 280 designated Safe Environment Coordinators in parishes, schools and other ministries; more than 92,000 adults who’ve been trained to recognize, respond to and report child abuse since 2003; almost 30,000 adults who have received mandatory reporter training; and more than 100,000 children who have received age-appropriate abuse prevention education. This training and education is ongoing.

In addition, he said all people working in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia undergo background checks and child abuse clearances, whether or not they work with children.

To Santora’s comment regarding being threatened, Gavin replied, “We don’t make threats and we don’t encourage people to do that either.”

Gavin said a large concern about HB 1947 revolves around the issue of parity.

“The prejudicial content of the bill creates two classes of victims and fails to treat private and public institutions with equity,” he said. “There is a drastic difference between how public and private institutions are treated by HB 1947 as it is currently written.

“Specifically, the bill does nothing to care for prior victims at public institutions such as public schools, juvenile detention facilities or county foster care programs,” he said. “This bill, in its current form, fails to treat victims and institutions in an equal way and that’s not sound jurisprudence.”

In addition, Gavin said the bill sets damage caps for injuries that occurred at public institutions and that victims must prove “gross negligence,” neither of which are applied to private organizations.

“So, even when things are viewed prospectively, there is a real lack of equality here,” he said.

And, as far as the legislation advocating for victims by providing them with more time, Gavin noted, “I would say that the legislation misses that mark entirely.”

Regarding the exception for public schools, there is a legislative movement to remove that and make public schools as responsible for similar acts as private organizations as outlined in this bill.

“To me, I’d say parity across the board,” Miccarelli said. “It is my belief … that any institution, public or private, which engages in a coordinated cover up of child rape, should be held accountable.”

In any case, he said HB 1947 does not eliminate the judicial system in which a case would still have to stand on its own merit, it still would have to be proven to a judge or jury and a judge continues to retain the right to throw out frivolous lawsuits.

Rozzi said it will be addressed to make it a good public policy and constitutional bill.

“Moving forward, we’re removing the exception,” he said.

Rozzi shared what HB 1947 means to him and those like himself.

“I know what it means for me personally,” he said. “I also know what it means for every other victim. It’s hope. I have a lot of people email me and call me and ask, ‘Is the opportunity real? Can we get this done? Who’s going to protect pedophiles and the Church over kids?’”

He said some worry about the pressuring tactics the Church may use.

“I heard from other representatives and senators the talk is, ‘Oh well, the Church has a Catholic senator that’s going to step up and kill this bill,’” Rozzi said. “We’re all hoping to get this done but we know this could be swept away in a heartbeat. There are still people out there who want to give them a free pass … Tell me one time the victim got a free pass. Never.”

State Sen. Tom McGarrigle, R-26, of Springfield said he plans to attend Monday’s meeting and has not yet determined how he would vote on it.

“I’m sure it’s a hot topic,” he said. “I’m sure it’s not going to sit on the shelf.”

In the meantime, his colleagues in the House question the Archdiocese’s approach in this matter.

“If the Church is trying to get people to listen to their point of view, give them a call and say, ‘Can we talk about this?’” Miccarelli said. “ Don’t get up in the church … after the bill is passed and guilt them.”

White added, “What’s really interesting about the whole thing is that they’re telling citizens … to have their senators vote no on the bill, instead of having conversations about the bill to make it more conducive to helping victims (and) that everyone is feeling confident that the legislation is going to be good.”

Santora conceded that the Church has done a lot for victims.

“I will not deny that,” he said. “However, if this was a private company and a similar situation was happening, the current CEO or the current board will be held for the company’s past actions. At the end of the day, … I have to make a choice and I chose the victims.”

At least one representative agreed.

“The church has been sending out a lot of misinformation,” Rozzi said. “It’s insulting. I think it’s also damaging to the Church – the image that you’re willing to put pedophiles and the institution that protects them above children.”

He said he hoped for calls for the removal of Chaput.

“This is not in the image of Christ,” Rozzi said. “This is certainly not what Jesus would do.”

Rozzi gave his own summation as to the concerted effort taking place.

“The guiltier you are,” the state representative said, “the harder you fight.”

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