As state legislators are poised to return to Harrisburg next week, they're being buffeted by strong words from Attorney General Josh Shapiro about enacting major reforms to Pennsylvania's child sex-abuse laws.
"They can stand with the work done by the grand jury, or stand with the phony excuses created by institutions that Harrisburg has kowtowed to for so long," Shapiro said Tuesday at his office in Norristown, referring to the bombshell grand jury report released last month detailing decades of widespread sexual abuse by Catholic priests in six dioceses.
"This is a real chance, where lawmakers have to choose between powerful lobbyists and the powerful people in their communities," Shapiro added.
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Central to the conversation Tuesday — for which Shapiro was joined by State Rep. Todd Stephens (R., Montgomery), State Sen. John Rafferty (R., Montgomery), Bucks County District Attorney Matthew Weintraub, Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin R. Steele, and victims of sex abuse – were four changes suggested by the grand jury in its report.
One of those recommendations, a clarification and strengthening of penalties for failing to report abuse, is being pushed by Stephens in House Bill 2641. Another one seeks to create a "civil window" of two years during which older victims would be allowed to file lawsuits related to their abuse even if the civil statute of limitations had expired.
Weintraub and Steele, speaking from experience as local prosecutors, said those limitations can prevent abuse from being discovered for decades, if at all.
"I think about the pressure we put on our children — we expect them to be brave enough, strong enough to report when a priest abuses them," Weintraub said. "That is incredibly intimidating and unrealistic."
In Pennsylvania, victims have until they're 50 years old to bring criminal charges, and 30 to file civil suits. Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) has introduced a bill that would eliminate the criminal statute of limitations for such cases, but require child sex-abuse victims to sue by age 50.
Mary McHale, a nurse from Reading, knows all too well how time can mask the harsh reality of abuse.
She said that as a senior at Reading Central Catholic High School in the 1980s, she was sexually abused by James Gaffney, a priest at the school. Thinking she was the only victim, she decided to "stuff the pain and move on," she said Tuesday.
Then, 15 years later, Gaffney's name appeared in local news accounts about his allegedly abusing another student at the high school, one in a class a few years behind her own.
McHale determined she had to act, and testified in the recent grand jury investigation. The experience, she said Tuesday, was "beyond freeing."
The latest proposal is "a no-brainer," she said. "If these people vote [for] this bill, they stand with the victims. And if they vote against it, they stand with pedophiles and those who hurt children."
Rafferty deflected questions about his previous opposition to a bill two years ago that sought to eliminate the statute of limitations in civil suits, saying that he was determined to enact the reform and knows "he is on the side of the right."
"I speak as a Catholic, a practicing Catholic.… I am appalled at the conduct of the Catholic Church and the dioceses with what they have done to allow this to happen," Rafferty said.
He said he didn't have insight on how his colleagues would vote on enacting the grand jury's full recommendations, but was confident they would "get a consensus."
The grand jury's report detailed more than 300 cases of sexual abuse by priests across Pennsylvania that had been suppressed over decades. Shapiro said Tuesday that in the five weeks since the report was made public, his office has received more than 1,000 calls from victims to a hotline dedicated to reporting such abuse.
He added that he has urged the leadership of the dioceses involved in the investigation to support the recommendations made by the grand jury, but has "heard only crickets."
"I hope they do the right thing," Shapiro said, "but history has shown us that they have placed a premium on their own institutional survival, and that is unacceptable."