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From champion to ... pariah? Pa. lawmaker behind clergy abuse reform on the outs with some victims

There is open talk in the Capitol’s hallways and on social media about the growing divide between Rep. Mark Rozzi and some in the victim community that once considered him their champion. Those victims, advocates, say, feel betrayed and abandoned.

State Rep. Mark Rozzi (D., Berks), left, speaks to sex abuse survivor Francesco Zanardi, right, during a news conference in Rome earlier this year. That trip, Rozzi said, changed the way he thinks about statute of limitations legislation and his own experiences as a sex abuse survivor.
State Rep. Mark Rozzi (D., Berks), left, speaks to sex abuse survivor Francesco Zanardi, right, during a news conference in Rome earlier this year. That trip, Rozzi said, changed the way he thinks about statute of limitations legislation and his own experiences as a sex abuse survivor.Read moreGregorio Borgia / AP

HARRISBURG — When child sexual-abuse victims and their advocates reunited on the Capitol steps last month to rally for the right to sue their violators, something didn’t look quite right.

Glaringly absent was State Rep. Mark Rozzi, a Reading Democrat who has for years been the legislature’s loudest advocate for changing the law to give older victims of childhood sexual abuse two more years to bring civil claims. The idea has gained urgency amid the child sexual-abuse scandal rocking the Roman Catholic Church.

Rozzi’s absence hinted at an unspoken divide that has emerged between the lawmaker and some in the victim community who once considered him their champion. Those victims, advocates say, feel betrayed and abandoned by him.

And as the issue has once again landed in the legislature, the question looming is whether the disagreement will hamper victims in their already-uphill push for changes in Pennsylvania’s law.

“It pains me,” said Jim Faluszczak, a survivor of clergy sex abuse. “He’s my brother, in a certain sense. He’s done so much on this issue, it just does not make any sense to me when we were all mobilized to fight so hard. … I don’t understand it.”

The fight is over process, rather than substance. Rozzi is taking a different approach to changing the law, and his new proposal blindsided many in the survivor community.

In an interview, Rozzi said he knows his actions have angered some victims, who he says have taken to calling him “a sellout.” But what he tried in the past didn’t work, and trying it again was “the definition of insanity.” It was, he said, time for a change.

“They just don’t get it,” Rozzi said of victims critical of his new approach. “I can explain it to them a hundred different times in a hundred different ways.”

Behind the rift

It was nearly midnight on Oct. 17 when frenzied negotiations over a proposal to create a two-year window in the civil statute of limitations ended in a spectacular collapse. It had been years since a legislative fight had become so intense — and so personal.

Rozzi had been pushing a measure that would give victims whose cases fell outside the statute of limitations a new chance to sue. As it stands now, childhood sexual-abuse victims can file civil claims only until they are 30.

At the time, Rozzi had the support of victims and their advocates and the House of Representatives, as well as state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, whose office last summer produced a scathing grand jury report on decades of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.

Together, they had aligned against Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson), who had for years balked at the idea. He contended that reopening the statute of limitations after it had already expired would violate the state constitution.

Scarnati, at the eleventh hour last fall, offered a compromise that seemed to back off that position, but it would have blocked suits against institutions, like the church, that may have covered up abuse. Talks collapsed.

The loss was demoralizing. As the legislature broke for the fall and winter holidays, both sides grappled with how to move forward. Meanwhile, other states, including New Jersey and New York, passed similar measures without the tortured hand-wringing in Pennsylvania.

Here, both sides were quiet — until this spring.

A new approach

Though some victims heard whispers that Rozzi was up to something, many were blindsided when, with no fanfare, he dropped a pair of bills with a new approach. Instead of directly suspending current law to open a two-year window, Rozzi proposed amending the state constitution to do so — a process that would take years to unfold.

A constitutional amendment requires the legislature to approve a bill, with exactly the same language, in two consecutive two-year sessions. After that, voters would need to approve it. Only three such amendments have gone to the voters in the last decade, according to state elections officials.

Some victims and their advocates were apoplectic at the idea that they would have to wait at least three years to even find out if such a measure could pass. They also were upset because they thought that Scarnati, with his proposed compromise, had retreated on the issue of constitutionality and that momentum was on their side.

But Rozzi and his supporters argue that even if it passed the legislature, opponents would yet again raise the constitutionality argument in court, potentially jamming it up for years. Changing the constitution, they believe, wipes out debate.

“He didn’t turn his back on me and he didn’t turn his back on anyone else,” Shaun Dougherty, a clergy sexual-abuse victim, said of Rozzi. “Mark Rozzi is a victim himself, and he wants nothing more than to get it resolved.”

The new proposals pushed by Rozzi, who teamed up with Republican State Rep. Jim Gregory of Blair County, have passed the House and are now in the Senate.

Drew Crompton, Scarnati’s chief of staff, said Scarnati hasn’t taken a position on the measures, nor has he committed to allowing a floor vote on them.

An epiphany

In the interview, Rozzi said he changed tactics after having an epiphany during a trip to Italy this past February. He was attending Pope Francis’ unprecedented summit on the church’s clergy sex-abuse scandal.

While there, the lawmaker visited his great-grandparents’ village north of Rome, and learned how difficult survival was for his great-grandmother, who raised four children alone after she lost her husband in World War I. But survive they did. That struck a chord with Rozzi, who said that for years he had been clinging to the 13-year-old version of himself that was raped by a priest.

“I remember going back to my hotel room and bawling,” said Rozzi. “And I remembered saying: `I am never going to call myself a victim anymore. I’m a survivor.' ”

He also decided, he said, to stop running into walls. He decided to start listening to concerns raised by Scarnati and others, stop vilifying opponents, and end public events that center around vivid and emotional descriptions of abuse. He wanted to get something accomplished. Victims, he hopes, will come around.

“Some people don’t want to wait” for a constitutional amendment, said Rozzi. “Too bad. … I can’t do the same thing over and over, only for a dog and pony show.”

Faluszczak and other victims back the original strategy, a version of which is now championed by a group of freshman Democrats in the Senate. Also behind them are Shapiro and state Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm, and activist groups like Child U.S.A., which has pushed for two-year windows around the country.

Marci Hamilton, Child U.S.A.'s founder and CEO, said victims she works with felt sucker-punched by Rozzi’s new bills.

“There have been many angry survivors who have approached him and have been given the back of the hand in response,” said Hamilton, an attorney who has represented victims. “They feel like they’ve been betrayed, which they have.”

Sarah Klein, a lawyer and the first known victim of former U.S.A. Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, is among those both flabbergasted and angered at Rozzi.

“Cowards in the legislature prefer constitutional change,” she said in an email. “A courageous legislature would immediately get behind a statute and get it passed. The real winners in the delay of constitutional change are the same old bad guys.”