Abuse survivors: Church leaders failing victims

About 10 members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests gathered Wednesday for a demonstration in front of the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese administration building on Logan Boulevard. Survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of local Roman Catholic clergy don’t believe much has changed since last year’s grand jury report. Mirror photo by Russ O’Reilly

This story was updated on March 3 to correct information on the Senate proposal to raise the statute of limitations in child sexual abuse cases.

Survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of local Roman Catholic clergy don’t believe much has changed since last year when a statewide grand jury revealed that about 50 religious leaders abused hundreds of children over the past 40 years in the Altoona-Johnstown diocese.

About 10 members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests gathered Wednesday for a demonstration in front of the diocese administration building on Logan Boulevard.

Mark Dougherty, who said he was sexually molested as a minor by a diocesan priest, said local legislators as well as church leadership are failing victims who deal with pain from past abuse.

“A year has gone by since the grand jury report. … and actions of the Republican state Senate are suffocating yesterday’s victims and jeopardizing today’s children,” Dougherty, of Johnstown, said.

Last year, the state attorney general recommended that the Legislature abolish criminal and civil statute of limitations on child sexual abuse completely.

By completely eliminating the statute of limitations for bringing a civil suit against an abuser, victims could make known the identity of pedophile priests who abused them and who are still in circulation now, some claim.

“That’s the crux of this. The victims want to make the name of their abuser known,” said Pamela Oddo, executive assistant to Berks County Rep. Mark Rozzi who fought for lifting statute of limitations retroactively last year.

A Senate bill sent to the House last month would extend the statute of limitations to allow those up to age 50 to file civil lawsuits alleging sexual abuse suffered as children. Current law states that those suits only can be filed until the victim’s 30th birthday.

The Senate bill also completely removes the statute of limitations for criminal cases involving child sexual abuse.

The Senate bill would not extend the length of time to file lawsuits for those who have already turned 30. Some critics of the Senate measure including Rozzi want the Legislature to remove the statute of limitations in all cases of child sexual abuse. Some senators claim raising the statute of limitations for people who have exceeded the current age limit would be unconstitutional.

Last year a House-passed measure to retroactively eliminate the statute of limitations in all child sexual abuse failed to gain Senate approval because of questions on the constitutionality of the proposal.

Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., R-Blair, as well as Rep. John McGinnis, R-Altoona, and Rep. Judy Ward-R, Hollidaysburg, opposed that retroactive aspect of the House bill last year because they consider it unconstitutional. The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference also lobbied against the proposal.

“Our bill (current Senate bill) is much broader and tougher on perpetrators than the original House bill,” Eichelberger said Wednesday.

However, the proposal continues to bar past victims from suing their abusers, which throws a majority of victims — past victims — under the bus, according to Rozzi.

“In addition to denying justice to past victims of childhood sexual abuse, Senate Bill 261 only allows action against individual abusers or those who conspired with them. Institutions are shielded from suit,” Rozzi said Wednesday.

Last year, Rozzi’s proposal to lift the statute of limitations retroactively failed on June 30. The next day, Brian Gergely, an outspoken victim from Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, committed suicide.

“That’s why people who went through sexual abuse are called survivors, because there are days you want to end it all,” John Nesbella of Nanty Glo said Wednesday at the rally in front of the diocese office.

Nesbella and Tom Venditti of Bolivar started an Altoona-Johnstown chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

Meetings will be scheduled monthly, Nesbella said, to support each other. He said the invitation is open, and information about the local chapter can be found on the SNAP website.

If hundreds of children were abused by priests as the grand jury report estimated, then there are thousands of people indirectly affected, Nesbella said.

“Parents, spouses, children … everyone is impacted because you are never the same after this happens to you,” Nesbella said.

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 46-7435

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