Lawmaker, a clergy abuse victim, protests legislative inaction from cathedral steps

| 6/19/16 | Maria Panaritis | Philadelphia Inquirer

Stoking a legislative fight over the civil statute of limitations, the Berks County Democrat pledged to rewrite a pending House bill to include a two-year window in which any adult of any age could sue private institutions and individuals for abuse that occurred when they were children.

“For over 50 years, this institution, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and its leadership, the archbishops, and in fact all Roman Catholic dioceses across the state of Pennsylvania believed they were above the law, that they didn’t have to abide by our laws,” Rozzi said, shouting. “And now, they hide behind our laws.”

His version would be more favorable to victims than that passed by the House in April. Under pressure from church and insurance lobbyists, the Senate unanimously voted last month to strip it of language that would have allowed people up to age 50 to sue for past abuse.

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput had been central in the Senate effort, having called on priests and parishioners in the five-county region to help put pressure on lawmakers. Archdiocesan officials also reportedly rebuked House members who had supported the Rozzi-backed bill.

A spokesman for Chaput declined to field questions about the demonstration Monday, issuing a statement with a single reference to the legislation.

“In the political debate about HB 1947, lawmakers are going to have to bridge the gap between emotion and logic and the law,” spokesman Ken Gavin wrote.

Marci Hamilton, a lawyer who has represented clergy abuse victims, stood with Rozzi in the midday heat to demand that elected officials “start representing the common good.”

“There is a separation of church and state,” Hamilton said. “They’re supposed to serve the people, and not just one set of wealthy religious lobbyists.”

Rozzi, raped as a child by a Catholic priest, won his House seat four years ago on a vow to change the statute of limitations. He led the brief demonstration on the cathedral steps, he said, because of Chaput’s role in quashing the most controversial element of the bill. He was joined by more than a dozen invited protesters.

Rozzi chided the archbishop for what he called “arrogance,” for taking strong public stands on other aspects of people’s private lives while displaying relative passivity toward children attacked by Catholic priests.

“When it comes to the sexual behavior of deviant, clerical predators,” Rozzi said, “he has nothing to say except, ‘The past is the past.’ ”

Rozzi waved several extensive grand jury reports that documented decades of clergy abuse against children in the Philadelphia Archdiocese and the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown in central Pennsylvania.

Those investigations exposed inaction by bishops attempting to avoid scandal and legal liability. In almost every case, however, criminal charges could not be brought due to the statute of limitations.

As a result, a number of prosecutors across Pennsylvania have urged that civil statutes be changed to allow lawsuits for past abuse.

Consideration of the bill is not expected until after summer.

A man named Jim – he would not give his last name – took his turn on the steps to ask for legislative action.

He identified himself as a 1965 Cardinal Dougherty High School graduate who went on to investigate sex crimes as a police officer in Washington. As he spoke in front of the cathedral, roughly a dozen bicycle police officers stood watch over the protest at Logan Square.

“I sat on my secret for 20 years,” Jim said. “No more secrets.”

mpanaritis@phillynews.com

610-313-8117 @Panaritism

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