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Proposed legislation concerns Catholics

Senate expected to vote on bills that would change limitations on sexual abuse cases

Two state House representatives, one from Hollidaysburg, the other from across the state, are hopeful that sexual abuse reform legislation they’ve proposed will pass today in the state Senate and eventually become law.

But the measures have plenty of critics, chief among them the Roman Catholic church, which claims it is the prime target of the legislation.

Church representatives have said that they have acknowledged the past sins of clergy sexual abuse, and they’re atoning for those with compensation funds and counseling for victims.

They’ve said they’ve also instituted reforms to avoid future problems.

State Reps. Jim Gregory, a Republican representing Blair County, and Rep. Mark Rozzi, a Democrat representing Berks County, put forth the pair of bills earlier this year.

Their bills, to be voted upon today in the Senate, would eliminate the statute of limitations on sexual abuse criminal charges and provide a two-year window on outdated civil lawsuits against alleged sexual abuse offenders.

Both bills raise the age of victims who can file claims from 30 to 55. Rozzi’s piece refers to eliminating the criminal statute of limitations on sex abuse crimes.

Gregory’s part calls for the two-year window that requires amending the state constitution, which means it must pass two consecutive legislative sessions.

It then must receive a favorable vote in a state referendum before it becomes law. The process would take about two years.

The bills are connected, which means both must pass or neither will become law.

Catholic church representatives have said the fallout from the legislation proposed will be the same in Pennsylvania as what has occurred in other states that have passed similar measures, particularly from the two-year window provision.

In most states that have passed such windows, Catholic dioceses have declared bankruptcies. Nationwide, 20 Roman Catholic dioceses have declared bankruptcy as of September 2019, according to media reports.

The Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown is already in financial straits, said spokesman Tony DeGol. He said the diocese has tried to cut costs to meet the financial demands of the clergy sexual abuse claims.

“Those steps include the sale of property and the reduction of staff,” he said. “If the diocese were to face the possibility of bankruptcy in the future, vital ministries such as education, youth programs and charitable outreach, could be affected. If that were to happen, Bishop (Mark) Bartchak — in consultation with his advisors, (who) are primarily lay individuals — would be prepared to take the appropriate steps to ensure that we would be able to continue the essential mission of the church.”

DeGol said the church’s main thoughts, however, are with the victims and survivors of sexual abuse and how the abuse affected them.

“We continue to assist them with the opportunity for independent, professional counseling,” he said. “We remain committed to helping them and their loved ones heal, and we remain committed to restoring the trust that was shaken among most, if not all, Catholics.”

But not everyone, especially those who speak for the sexual abuse victims, are worried about the financial health of the local diocese.

Rozzi, who got into the fight because he said he was abused at age 13 by a Catholic priest, said the idea that the diocese will go broke is a sham. The dioceses that file for bankruptcy file under Chapter 11, as a reorganization.

“They only do it to protect their assets,” he said.

Rozzi said even if they are forced to cut some social programs, there are others to pick up the slack.

Gregory agreed, saying people need to remember that victims have waited long enough for justice, which is what he said the legislation he and Rozzi have proposed will deliver.

The Catholic church may feel singled out by the proposed legislation but it’s aimed at all institutions including schools, youth groups and churches of all denominations.

“This is for all victims, not just those of the Catholic church,” Gregory said.

Richard Serbin, an attorney who has represented hundreds of clients in sexual abuse cases against the Catholic church, said the dioceses of Erie and Allentown have reportedly shifted property into trusts to keep them off-limits to creditors in case the dioceses file for bankruptcy.

“It’s all an effort to skirt their responsibility,” he said.

George Foster, another area Catholic church critic who has penned a book about the local diocese, said he believes it’s possible the local diocese could become financially bankrupt.

But he doesn’t see the demise of the area diocese if the spirit of the church remains.

“The church will continue to thrive where there is holiness,” he said.

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