PHILADELPHIA — A year ago, Pennsylvania’s grand jury report on sexual abuse committed by Catholic clergy landed with 800 pages of devastating detail and a worldwide impact.
The report led to arrests of priests in Michigan, protests in Maryland, the ouster of a cardinal in Washington, sweeping new legislation in New York, and even new policies at the Vatican.
Yet what did not happen was the one thing that the grand jurors actually called for: legislative action in Pennsylvania.
“It’s just one of the ugliest situations I have ever seen,” said Frances Unglo-Samber, an activist for survivors of clergy abuse. She attended rallies and pleaded with state lawmakers to pass legislation after the grand jury report, which documented abuse of more than 1,000 children by 300 named priests, was released last August.
And then, at the last minute, the reform effort fell apart. The state wouldn’t take the actions recommended by the grand jury. Pennsylvania wouldn’t get rid of the criminal statute of limitations for child sexual abuse or open a window so that victims could bring civil suits against past abusers and the institutions that protected them.
“It’s changed in other states,” said Unglo-Samber, whose brother killed himself after finally disclosing that he had been raped by their childhood priest. “How could it not change in Pennsylvania?”
Marci Hamilton, who tracks legislation at the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Child USA, called the past year “an absolutely banner year for statute-of-limitation reform” nationwide, largely propelled by the Pennsylvania grand jury report. “We had a tipping point. … The way that the world and the other states responded was, finally, almost purely pro-victim,” Hamilton said.
Twenty states and the District of Columbia passed laws extending or eliminating their statutes of limitations for child sexual abuse or allowing prior victims to sue, Hamilton said. In New York, the legislature granted a window for lawsuits that opens Wednesday; the state expects a flood of litigation.
Meanwhile, change in Pennsylvania sputtered — a cautionary tale that what works in some states may fail in others. The difference, advocates maintain, often comes down to which party dominates the state legislature.
“In states that are controlled by Republicans, it’s very hard to get around the bishops and the insurance industry,” Hamilton said. “No one knows more about [child sexual abuse] than law enforcement in the state of Pennsylvania, and quite amazingly, that has not moved the staunch Catholic lawmakers who simply are not going to stop protecting their church against lawsuits.”
That’s not to say that Republican-controlled legislatures won’t take action on child sexual abuse. Of the 21 jurisdictions that passed bills changing their statutes of limitations in 2019, nine have Republican-controlled legislatures, and eight have Democratic-controlled legislatures, according to information from Child USA and the National Conference of State Legislatures. (The rest have split legislatures or, in the case of Nebraska, nonpartisan lawmakers.)
But the Democratic-led legislatures tended to take more sweeping steps. New Jersey opened a two-year window for any victim to sue and extended the civil statute for future cases to age 55 or seven years after the victim comes forward, whichever is later. Rhode Island made its new, lengthy statute of limitations apply retroactively to old claims against abusers. Vermont went even further, reviving all expired claims against abusers and institutions such as churches. Vermont also got rid of its criminal statute of limitations entirely for many child sexual abuse crimes, as did Washington state, the District and Republican-led Montana.
The steps taken in some Republican-controlled states were more modest: Alabama gave victims up to age 25 to sue, and Montana up to 27; Arizona gave them up to 30 as well as a 19-month window for old cases; Tennessee gave them up to 33.
Republican-led Florida and Mississippi legislatures also considered bills and did not pass them, like Pennsylvania — and like Democratic-led Oregon.
In Pennsylvania, the lobbying effort against the bill was intense. While lobbying spending on specific issues is hard to track in the state, two law firms released a report showing the Catholic Church spent more than $700,000 in Pennsylvania in 2018, more in just one year than it spent in a seven-year period in New Jersey, Massachusetts and several other states.
“The church, every step of the way, has refused to reform and has taken the most cynical path each time,” said Josh Shapiro, the Democratic state attorney general whose office released the grand jury report.
Leaders of Pennsylvania dioceses have expressed their desire to cooperate with law enforcement but have also fought in court, including battling to keep some of the priests’ names in the grand jury report sealed.
Republican state senators said they worried lawsuits would bankrupt churches and raised questions about whether cases could be tried fairly after such a long time. With the clock ticking down to the end of the 2018 legislative session, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati proposed allowing suits against individuals but not against institutions. Democrats cried foul. The night ended, in the wee hours, with no bill at all.
Scarnati did not agree to an interview but said in a statement that he was “committed to working with my colleagues to address” this year’s new bills on child sexual abuse. He pointed out that Pennsylvania dioceses have been hearing victims’ cases and doling out payments through their own victim compensation funds, outside of the court system. “Financial assistance cannot change the past, but will aid victims as they attempt to move forward,” Scarnati wrote.
The New York Times reported that several of Scarnati’s former staff members and his chief of staff’s wife work for the lobbying firm representing the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania.
The grand jury report, which examined six of the eight dioceses in the state, wasn’t the first time that Pennsylvania scrutinized the Catholic Church. Both the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown were studied in earlier, similar grand jury reports. Philadelphia was the site of the first criminal trial in the nation holding a priest responsible for his oversight of other priests who abused children.
The nation had also known for at least 16 years, since the Boston Globe’s 2002 expose revealed the scandal to the country, that Catholic clergy had committed crimes against children.
But this time was different, sparking comprehensive investigations across the country. Attorneys general in 20 states and the District of Columbia started their own probes, by Hamilton’s count. They set about obtaining secret archives in dioceses’ offices that they had never pursued before. They set up hotlines for victims to call and assigned staff to focus on cases.
Shapiro says he and his staff became consultants to prosecutors nationwide on how to investigate the Catholic Church — they talked to prosecutors from almost every state.
Catholic lay people, too, reacted differently. They threw together protests in at least half a dozen cities, calling for bishops to submit to similar civil investigations or resign. Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl came under scrutiny for his prior actions in Pittsburgh described in the document and eventually stepped down.
The moment was right, for any number of reasons. The influence of the Catholic Church itself has declined precipitously since the 2002 scandal, as have the church’s membership numbers. And months after the Me Too movement began, the nation was ready to listen to victims.
Along with the revelation of sexual abuse committed by the now-defrocked cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the Pennsylvania report was a major factor pushing the Vatican to address the issue of sexual abuse in this past year. More than 15 years after the Boston Globe exposé, Pope Francis convened the first worldwide summit to address abuse. In the United States, bishops voted on a new plan to police themselves — which, like the Vatican’s actions, has been received by advocates with some skepticism. Many within the church continue to clamor for more-vigorous reforms.
But in Pennsylvania, lawmakers haven’t budged.
Shapiro said he still hopes that a bill can pass when lawmakers return to Harrisburg this fall. A similar version has been reintroduced to eliminate the criminal statute of limitations, which currently blocks cases in the state after the victim turns 50, younger than many victims who have come forward. Some lawmakers are also pursuing a constitutional amendment to allow for a window for victims to sue, which Shapiro said is unnecessary because he thinks it is already constitutional. Some Republicans said the window for old suits might violate the state’s constitution.
Between his meetings with state legislators, Shapiro has even more difficult conversations.
Last week, a man came in, scheduled for 15 minutes with the state’s attorney general. He sat at the wide wood conference table, gazing out at the children playing in the fountain by Philadelphia’s famous LOVE sculpture.
Sitting by the memorabilia in Shapiro’s office commemorating the state’s greatest joys and sorrows — a towel from the Eagles Super Bowl win right beside a memorial bracelet for the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting — the man spoke of his abuse. He talked of his drug use and his newfound sobriety, his criminal past and his determination to be a good husband and father.
He stayed more than an hour, just wanting to be heard.
In Harrisburg, state Rep. Mark Rozzi (D) knows something about how that man feels. His own abuse by a priest, when he was a child, has driven him to get statute-of-limitation reform passed. When Francis gathered bishops from across the globe to talk about abuse this year, Rozzi went, too, to speak to the Italian Parliament and U.S. Ambassador Callista Gingrich and the protesters in St. Peter’s Square.
“When we look back at Pennsylvania, is this going to be the grand jury report that finally gets victims on the path to justice?” he asks.
He lists the perpetrators who have victimized people in Pennsylvania: not just those 300 priests in the report and untold numbers more, but Amish and Mennonite abusers, schoolteachers, pediatricians, Boy Scout leaders, Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky, Bill Cosby. “We’ve been through so many of these infamous cases right here," he says. "When is enough going to be enough?”