Sex-abuse victims deserve a grand-jury investigation of politicians who block justice | Ronnie Polaneczky

Pennsylvania Dioceses-Sex Abuse Investigation
Former priest James Faluszczak, who says he was molested by a priest as a teenager, reacts as Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg.

Dear grand jury members,

Thank you for your 24-month investigation into childhood sex abuse by Catholic priests and the cover-up that perpetuated it for decades.

You must feel drained. But we still need you.

Please convene one more time to investigate why Pennsylvania legislators keep blocking bills that would give all victims of childhood sex abuse a shot at justice.

The actions of some politicians are as chilling as those of the bishops and lawyers who protected the Church’s assets instead of its children’s innocence.

They’re not trustworthy leaders. They’re co-conspirators in an obstruction of justice.

We need you to name names. To connect the dots between legislators and certain lobbyists who infest the state Capitol. To rake through emails, reconcile bank records, and tally campaign donations.

Basically, we need you to tell us exactly who is helping protect powerful institutions from the consequences of their own depravity – and for how much.

As you know, five out of the six grand jury investigations into childhood sex abuse in Pennsylvania since 2003 have recommended opening a “window” of time during which long-ago victims could seek justice for the horrors they endured. For decades, victims had only two years to report their abuse — as if a 12-year-old has the capacity to understand, within 24 months, what was done to him or her — let alone advocate for justice.

The statutes now allow victims to file civil suits until they’re 30 and criminal charges until they’re 50. But studies show most victims don’t begin reckoning with what they endured until age 52.

Nine states have instituted retroactive windows, which have brought a tsunami of action.

In 2007, for example, when Delaware opened a two-year window, 1,175 victims came forward; 1,000 of them had been childhood patients of Lewes pediatrician Earl Bradley, whose victims were as young as 3 months old.

A similar reckoning could happen in Pennsylvania for any victim of childhood sexual abuse, whether the perpetrator was a deviant priest, a monster like Penn State predator Jerry Sandusky or a serial molester like Bradley.

But too many legislators have spurned every bill that proposes a window.

You’re likely aware of House Bill 612, for example, introduced by State Rep. Mark Rozzi (D., Berks). It passed 180 to 15 in the House, but State Sen. Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) – the Senate’s powerful president pro tem — won’t even bring it for a hearing in the Senate.

You, dear jurors, spent two brutal years listening to victims. Scarnati won’t give older victims a single afternoon to say why the window matters to them.

He has, however, introduced his own sex-abuse reform bill. It abolishes the statute of limitations in most cases going forward but opens no retroactive window.

“His bill does nothing for past victims,” says Rozzi, who was molested as a child by a priest. “It’s outrageous.”

Scarnati and others argue that a window is unconstitutional, which just isn’t true, says Penn attorney and child sex-abuse legal expert Marci Hamilton, author of Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children.

“The window does not violate due process under either the Pennsylvania or federal Constitutions,” says Hamilton, who is director of the nonprofit CHILD USA, which seeks to end child abuse and neglect through evidence-based research and enlightened law and public policy.

Scarnati’s obstinance must delight one of his campaign donors, the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania, which opposes the window. (Some of the organization’s members would likely take a financial hit if a window resulted in settlements they’d have to pay on behalf of the institutions they insure.) Last week, my colleagues Liz Navratil and Angela Couloumbis reported that the federation has donated $30,000 to Scarnati since 2016.

I hope, jury members, you’d also be curious about Scarnati’s dealings with Long, Nyquist Associates, a powerful Harrisburg lobbying firm whose client list includes the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, which also opposes a window.

Three of the firm’s executives once worked for Scarnati. (Todd Nyquist, Scarnati’s former chief of staff, is described on the firm’s website as Scarnati’s “alter ego.”) A fourth employee is married to Scarnati’s current chief of staff.

How many other legislators who oppose the window have cozy lobbyist connections that we should know about?

We need you to find out, grand jurors. You spent two years and buckets of tears listening to victims beg for justice. You alone have the moral authority to find out why Harrisburg won’t give it to them.

If you support legislation that would open a retroactive window for child sex-abuse victims, contact your elected reps and tell them so, or call Rep. Mark Rozzi for more information at 717-783-3290.