Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Suburban Catholics drive effort to let victims of long-ago abuse sue

Former Eagles linebacker Al Chesley spent nearly a decade crashing offensive lines and mauling quarterbacks, but it took him 48 years to muster the strength to reveal one of his defining moments:

Bob Riley, left, and Maureen Martinez are two Main Line parents who are  co-chairs of the group Justice4PaKids. Their group will sponsor a free seminar on child sex-abuse  Oct. 6 in Plymouth Meeting. ( Charles Fox / Staff Photographer )
Bob Riley, left, and Maureen Martinez are two Main Line parents who are co-chairs of the group Justice4PaKids. Their group will sponsor a free seminar on child sex-abuse Oct. 6 in Plymouth Meeting. ( Charles Fox / Staff Photographer )Read more

Former Eagles linebacker Al Chesley spent nearly a decade crashing offensive lines and mauling quarterbacks, but it took him 48 years to muster the strength to reveal one of his defining moments:

At age 13, Chesley said, he was repeatedly raped by a policeman in his Washington, D.C., neighborhood.

Last week, couriers delivered Chesley's story and accounts from other alleged abuse victims to the office of every Pennsylvania state representative. The testimonials launched a campaign to reopen or eliminate the statute of limitations so older victims can sue or bring charges against their abusers.

The grassroots effort is being driven by a cadre of suburban Catholics stirred by the February grand jury report that faulted the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's handling of sex-abuse allegations. But by enlisting non-Catholics and highlighting accounts such as Chesley's that don't involve clergy, organizers hope to reframe the debate: It's not about the church, they say.

"Yes, we're mad Catholics who got fired up on this issue, but the message is protecting all sex-abuse victims," said Maureen Martinez, a Malvern mother and a leader of their coalition, Justice4PAKids.

Getting fired up doesn't always equal getting results.

In Harrisburg they face opposition from the church and insurers, and have to sway a Republican legislature and governor who have shown no signs of warming to the idea. Bills by Philadelphia Democratic Reps. Michael McGeehan and Louise Williams Bishop to suspend or eliminate the statute of limitations have sat untouched in the Republican-led House Judiciary Committee since March.

The advocates hope their broaden-the-umbrella tactic draws more supporters, but it has pitfalls. It's not unlike the strategy new Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput is credited with using to thwart similar bills in Colorado in 2006, when he led the Denver Diocese.

There, Chaput spearheaded an aggressive campaign to reshape the debate and the bills to target any abusers and institutions, not just the clergy and church. Worried about a flood of outdated claims, teachers and municipal unions worked to kill the bill.

Supporters of the new Pennsylvania proposals say the next month, when the assembly prioritizes its agenda, will be crucial to their success. They concede the odds are long.

"Do I think it's an easy push? Absolutely not," said State Rep. Doug Reichley (R., Lehigh), one of three Republicans to join McGeehan's bill.

Chesley's testimonial is one of 10 from alleged victims the group plans to deliver to lawmakers over 10 days. They also plan a Capitol news conference demanding action for the bills, and at least one community forum.

Last week, advocates believed they succeeded in at least getting the attention of Judiciary Committee Chairman Ron Marsico (R., Dauphin) by posting dozens of messages on his Facebook page. Within a day, the page was disabled.

Marsico's chief of staff, Autumn Southard, said he was unavailable for comment but insisted the office had disabled the page because it was redundant, not because of any postings. "We have everything on his website that we would post on his Facebook page," Southard said.

She also said the committee had 300 bills to consider and had not decided which ones will get its attention.

State Rep. Todd Stephens (R., Montgomery), a former sex-crimes prosecutor who joined the legislature this year and serves as committee secretary, said he wouldn't oppose a hearing on the bills, citing misperceptions about the current law and proposals to change it. "But obviously," Stephens said, "that's the chairman's call."

Five years ago, on the heels of another Philadelphia grand jury report, legislators extended the statute to let victims who were abused as children file criminal charges up until they turn 50 and civil suits until 30. Those laws, however, apply only to new victims, not those abused before 2006.

The church has steadfastly opposed changes in statutes of limitations. At least 10 Catholic dioceses have filed for bankruptcy after a flood lawsuits over clergy sex abuse. Among them was the Wilmington Diocese, which faced 150 suits after Delaware legislators reopened the statute there.

"The passage of time makes it nearly impossible for a church or any other organization to defend itself against allegations from 30, 40, and 50 years ago," said Amy Hill, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, a lobbying arm. "Allowing someone to sue indefinitely for many years beyond the incident will undermine the ability of any organization to care for children, due to the likely uninsurability of such liability risks."

Supporters of the new legislation note that child-abuse victims typically carry their secret for decades. They say opening the window could help identify predators who have long escaped prosecution or any public scrutiny.

"No one's saying if these victims get their cases to court they're going to win," said Susan Matthews, who runs the online forum Catholics4Change and posted on Marsico's page. "This is just allowing them the opportunity to seek justice."

Margaret Reif, a Downingtown mother who started the Catholic Accountability Project, said she did not want to enrich lawyers or bankrupt the church, and would support a cap on damages in such suits. "As a parent, it's really important that we can say who these people are and get them off the street."

Like Reif, Bob Riley became engaged in the issue after the latest grand jury report. A 64-year-old financial adviser, grandfather, and lifelong Catholic from Devon, Riley said he was so outraged by the developments that he decided to attend a meeting organized by abuse victims in Northeast Philadelphia.

Riley wasn't a victim himself but was stunned to hear people who looked little different than him describe the impact of the abuse. "It was just unfathomable to me that this horrific situation could be happening and getting so little notoriety," he said.

At the same meeting he met Martinez, who was stirred to act after a priest in her Malvern parish - the one who baptized two of her children and was helping the third prepare for confirmation - was among the two dozen suspended while the archdiocese reexamines past accusations against them.

 Though new to the issue, the group is being guided by longtime activists against clergy sex abuse, including Marci Hamilton, a lawyer and author who speaks nationally on the topic and represents a half-dozen accusers suing the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

 A half-dozen or more core members now join their weekly conference call. In late September, Justice4PAKids sponsored an informational session for invited guests at Aronimink Golf Club, where Riley is a past president.

"They made it very clear that night that this was not a Catholic [church] thing," said Joe Tankle, CEO of the Upper Main Line YMCA, one of about 30 people attending.

The next step is building Harrisburg support. Just finding a lobbyist willing to take on the issue has been a struggle, according to John Salveson, a victim and Bryn Mawr resident who for decades has pressed for new laws.

Most either claim to be conflicted because they represent the church or the insurance industry - or they are reluctant to join a battle with little prospect of victory. "Their message is that this is some heavy lifting - and it's going to cost you a lot of money," Salveson said.

Chesley, who played for the Eagles from 1979 to 1982, said he's willing to testify in Harrisburg, if needed. In an interview last week, he said he held his secret tight for decades, until both his parents had died. Since then, Chesley has appeared at child sex-abuse events around the country.

Now 53, Chesley thinks the officer who abused him is long dead. Even if he was alive, Chesley's not sure he'd sue him, he said, except to expose him "so other kids don't go through the pain that I went through."