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Pa. report on sex abuse shook nation, Vatican, but changed nothing in the state

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro held hands with Judy Deaven, who said her son was a victim of sexual abuse by a priest as a boy, during a news conference at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro held hands with Judy Deaven, who said her son was a victim of sexual abuse by a priest as a boy, during a news conference at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

PHILADELPHIA — A year ago, Pennsylvania’s grand jury report on sexual abuse committed by Catholic clergy landed with 800 pages of devastating detail and a worldwide impact.

The report led to arrests of priests in Michigan, protests in Maryland, the ouster of a cardinal in Washington, sweeping new legislation in New York, and even new policies at the Vatican.

Yet what did not happen was the one thing that the grand jurors actually called for: legislative action in Pennsylvania.

‘‘It’s changed in other states,’’ said Frances Unglo-Samber, an activist for survivors of clergy abuse, whose brother killed himself after finally disclosing that he had been raped by their childhood priest. ‘‘How could it not change in Pennsylvania?’’

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Marci Hamilton, who tracks legislation at the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Child USA, called the past year ‘‘an absolutely banner year for statute-of-limitation reform’’ nationwide, largely propelled by the Pennsylvania grand jury report. ‘‘We had a tipping point. . . . The way that the world and the other states responded was, finally, almost purely pro-victim,’’ Hamilton said.

Twenty states and the District of Columbia passed laws extending or eliminating their statutes of limitations for child sexual abuse or allowing prior victims to sue, Hamilton said. In New York, the legislature granted a window for lawsuits that opens Wednesday; the state expects a flood of litigation.

Meanwhile, change in Pennsylvania sputtered — a cautionary tale that what works in some states may fail in others. The difference, advocates maintain, often comes down to which party dominates the state legislature.

‘‘In states that are controlled by Republicans, it’s very hard to get around the bishops and the insurance industry,’’ Hamilton said. ‘‘No one knows more about [child sexual abuse] than law enforcement in the state of Pennsylvania, and quite amazingly, that has not moved the staunch Catholic lawmakers who simply are not going to stop protecting their church against lawsuits.’’

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That’s not to say that Republican-controlled legislatures won’t take action on child sexual abuse. Of the 21 jurisdictions that passed bills changing their statutes of limitations in 2019, nine have Republican-controlled legislatures, and eight have Democratic-controlled legislatures, according to information from Child USA and the National Conference of State Legislatures. (The rest have split legislatures or, in the case of Nebraska, nonpartisan lawmakers.)

But the Democratic-led legislatures tended to take more sweeping steps. New Jersey opened a two-year window for any victim to sue and extended the civil statute for future cases to age 55 or seven years after the victim comes forward, whichever is later. Rhode Island made its new, lengthy statute of limitations apply retroactively to old claims against abusers. Vermont went even further, reviving all expired claims against abusers and institutions such as churches. Vermont also got rid of its criminal statute of limitations entirely for many child sexual abuse crimes, as did Washington state, the District, and Republican-led Montana.

The steps taken in some Republican-controlled states were more modest: Alabama and Montana gave victims up to age 27 to sue; Arizona gave them up to age 30 as well as a 19-month window for old cases; Tennessee gave them up to age 33.

Republican-led Florida and Mississippi legislatures also considered bills and did not pass them, like Pennsylvania — and like Democratic-led Oregon.

In Pennsylvania, the lobbying effort against the bill was intense. Although lobbying spending on specific issues is hard to track in the state, two law firms released a report showing the Catholic Church spent more than $700,000 in Pennsylvania in 2018, more in just one year than it spent in a seven-year period in New Jersey, Massachusetts, and several other states.

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‘‘The church, every step of the way, has refused to reform and has taken the most cynical path each time,’’ said Josh Shapiro, the Democratic state attorney general whose office released the grand jury report.

Leaders of Pennsylvania dioceses have expressed their desire to cooperate with law enforcement but have also fought in court, including battling to keep some of the priests’ names in the grand jury report sealed.

Republican state senators said they worried lawsuits would bankrupt churches and raised questions about whether cases could be tried fairly after such a long time. With the clock ticking down to the end of the 2018 legislative session, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, a Republican, proposed allowing suits against individuals but not against institutions. Democrats cried foul. The night ended, in the wee hours, with no bill at all.

Scarnati did not agree to an interview but said in a statement that he was ‘‘committed to working with my colleagues to address’’ this year’s new bills on child sexual abuse. He pointed out that Pennsylvania dioceses have been hearing victims’ cases and doling out payments through their own victim compensation funds, outside of the court system. ‘‘Financial assistance cannot change the past, but will aid victims as they attempt to move forward,’’ Scarnati wrote.

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The New York Times reported that several of Scarnati’s former staff members and his chief of staff’s wife work for the lobbying firm representing the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania.

The grand jury report, which examined six of the eight dioceses in the state, wasn’t the first time that Pennsylvania scrutinized the Catholic Church. Both the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown were studied in earlier, similar grand jury reports. Philadelphia was the site of the first criminal trial in the nation holding a priest responsible for his oversight of other priests who abused children.

The nation had also known for at least 16 years, since the Boston Globe’s 2002 expose revealed the scandal to the country, that Catholic clergy had committed crimes against children.

But this time was different, sparking comprehensive investigations across the country. Attorneys general in 20 states and the District of Columbia started their own probes, by Hamilton’s count.