The possible inclusion of a retroactivity clause is the most contentious sticking point in the discussion about changing Pennsylvania’s statute-of-limitations laws for cases of child sexual abuse.
Many elected officials seem to be in agreement about increasing the current age limits of 30 for civil actions and 50 for criminal complaints.
However, one side, led by state Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, and advocates in the Johnstown region, want any new law to include a two-year window during which alleged victims could file civil claims against perpetrators of past abuse. Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, a Republican, backed by the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania, opposes retroactivity, believing it would violate the commonwealth’s constitution.
The state’s top law enforcement officer has taken an unequivocal stance.
“I have made my position quite clear on that issue, both as a lawmaker when I was in the (Pennsylvania) House (of Representatives), as a candidate for this office, and since I’ve been in this office that I think we should have a retroactivity provision,” Attorney General Josh Shapiro said when meeting with members of The Tribune-Democrat staff on Wednesday.
Pennsylvania’s laws were thrust into the political forefront after a grand jury report – released in 2016 – revealed the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown allegedly orchestrated a decades-long coverup to protect priests and other religious leaders accused of abusing children. Most of the reported incidents were past the time restrictions.
Only Revs. Giles A. Schinelli, Robert J. D’Aversa and Anthony M. Criscitelli have been charged as a result of the investigation, facing one count apiece of conspiracy and endangering the welfare of children. In their roles as ministers provincial of the Third Order Regular, Province of the Immaculate Conception, the three Franciscan friars gave Brother Stephen Baker assignments where he had access to minors, even though, as the attorney general’s office contends, they knew he posed a threat to children. Baker is believed to have abused 100 or more children during the years he spent at Bishop McCort High School.
Lawyers for the three defendants recently petitioned for the cases to be dismissed.
A motion hearing and oral arguments are scheduled for June 14 at Blair County Courthouse.
“We are putting a lot of resources into the upcoming trial of these three,” Shapiro said. “We will do everything in our power to earn convictions.
“It’s important not just to convict the three of them for their victims, but to show all victims – particularly those who were shut out because of the statute of limitations – that we’re going to pursue justice.”
Multiple sources have also indicated the attorney general’s office is conducting a larger statewide investigation into allegations of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church.
“Because of ethics and because of secrecy rules, it’s really not something that I can get in to,” Shapiro said when asked generally about any possible future investigations. “Suffice to say, these issues are critically important to me, and I believe that we must root out child abuse wherever it is in this commonwealth, whoever is perpetrating it. No one is off limits. No one is out of bounds.
“And my job is to apply the rule of law withour fear or favor, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
The attorney general’s office has an open tipline – 888-538-8541 – for anybody who wants to report abuse. The diocese, victim service providers, a newly formed local Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests chapter, and others are also available to provide assistance.
“From my perspective, I think there should be no wrong door when someone makes a phone call, whoever they call,” Shapiro said. “The information should be shared. And ultimately it gives us in law enforcement the ability to go after the perpetrators.”