With the fate of a child sex-abuse bill on the line in Harrisburg, clergy sex-abuse victims and their relatives told their stories Tuesday as part of a renewed push to change Pennsylvania law so victims can sue for decades-old attacks.
A bill that passed the House in April would have, among other things, expanded the statute of limitations so victims age 50 and under could sue the men or women who abused them decades ago, as well as the institutions that supervised them.
Citing concerns about its constitutionality and after critics, notably the Catholic Church, warned the measure could unfairly cripple some parishes, the Senate removed that provision.
It left intact provisions to eliminate the criminal statute of limitations for such acts and to apply the expanded civil statute of limitations to all future victims. The bill still needs full approval by the House and Senate.
Rep. Mark Rozzi (D., Berks), a key proponent of the original law and organizer of Tuesday's gathering, said he was not sure he would support what's left of the measure.
With only a few weeks left in the current legislative session, Rozzi said he and House leaders were considering pushing to amend the Senate's version of the bill but also were weighing whether to wait and revive the fight for retroactive lawsuits after a new legislature arrives in January.
Rozzi noted the revelations last week that the Attorney General's Office has expanded its criminal probe of clergy sex abuse to include six of Pennsylvania's eight Catholic dioceses. He also cited the arrest of an Allentown-area priest last week on child-pornography charges.
"More evidence," he said, "that the church cannot police itself."
About a dozen victims, relatives, lawyers, and advocates from Pennsylvania and Boston spoke at the event, including Boston attorney Eric MacLeish and two others portrayed in the Oscar-winning film Spotlight. The news conference was staged to coincide with the annual meeting of the National Crime Victim Bar Association.
Victims, their relatives, and the chief victim advocate for Gov. Wolf asked that the public and lawmakers embrace the element of the law spurned by the Senate as potentially unconstitutional.
"This has been a long fight in Pennsylvania," said Jennifer Storm, the commonwealth victim advocate and a supporter of giving abuse victims retroactive rights to sue. She said she was "begging and imploring" the Senate to change its position. "It's time to do the right thing in Pennsylvania."
One victim's mother, Catherine "Cass" Spoerl, choked back tears as she took her turn to speak.
Her son, Jim, she said, was abused as a child by the Rev. James Brzyski at St. Cecilia's parish in Fox Chase. Jim Spoerl died earlier this year at age 44.
Brzyski, described by a Philadelphia grand jury as one of the most notorious serial abusers in the Philadelphia, was never charged - and has long since left the area.
Spoerl was confounded by the fact there was any debate about changing the law, given the severity of abuse suffered by young children.
"Why it even needs to be discussed - these are babies," Spoerl said.