Former Pittsburgh Legislator Says Justice For Sex Abuse Victims Could Have Come A Decade Ago

Aug 17, 2018

The release of a state grand-jury report about child sexual abuse in the Catholic church has brought up painful stories of abuse, and demands for justice.

For Pittsburgh lawyer Lisa Bennington, the report’s release – and its call to make it easier for victims to obtain justice – has also dredged up a painful irony.

“I was asking for those reforms over 10 years ago,” she said. “Now our legislators have to act, because now their constituents are angry.” But back then, “legislators [didn’t] want to handle it” – and some of the same interest groups are lobbying against the cause today.

Between 2007 and 2008, Bennington served in the state House of Representatives, where she held the Pittsburgh seat currently occupied by state Rep. Dom Costa. After a grand jury revealed sexual abuse in the Philadelphia diocese, she introduced a 2007 bill to allow victims of child abuse to sue for damages until they turned 50 years old. The current age limit is 30.

But her House Bill 1137 in May 2007 was referred to the House Judiciary committee, where it never received a vote.

“Nobody would let it out of committee and it couldn’t get much traction,” she said. “It was devastating.”

Bennington said she was lobbied by the then-head of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, which advocates on behalf of the church in Harrisburg. He said “that my bill would bankrupt the church. … [H]e also wanted me to know that if I ran for re-election, they would do what they could to support my opponents.”

“For the church to have any position that they ever tried to help victims is disingenuous at best,” Bennington said.

Bennington’s legislation “was a vital issue, but it did not have legislative viability,” said Bill DeWeese, a former Greene County legislator who was then the Democrats’ majority leader.

Among the reasons the bill struggled, said DeWeese, was “the Catholic membership in the House and the Senate – but especially from Allegheny County and Philadelphia.”   

Western Pennsylvania is replete with Catholic Democratic voters who, in accordance with church teaching, can skew conservative on social issues while supporting liberal economic causes. Many elected officials reflect those views.  

Bennington’s cause has been taken up by state Rep. Mark Rozzi, a Berks County Democrat who has come forward with his own account of being raped by a priest.

Rozzi said the failure to pass Bennington’s bill was a tragic missed opportunity. Had it passed, he said, the debate “would have been over. It would have been done … Our legislators – the blood is on their hands because they did not act.”

Rozzi has proposed legislation that would  remove the statute of limitations for abuse. But his House Bill 612 is at odds with a state Senate that would also raise the age limit for filing a lawsuit. At issue is a provision in Rozzi’s bill that, for two years, would allow any older abuse victim to sue, regardless of how long ago the abuse took place.

Critics of the proposal say that suing people retroactively, as Rozzi’s two-year window would allow, would be unconstitutional. They also worry it would place a potentially huge financial burden on the church, based on decades-old events.

Similar concerns scuttled a bill to rollback the deadline on abuse lawsuits in 2016.  But Rozzi said this week that thanks to the grand jury report, the public was calling for change.

“That’s what they’re most afraid of, the public opinion,” he said of his fellow legislators. “And once that turns, so will these guys."

“The Catholic Conference is up for the fight of their life right now,” he said.

Rozzi said he has the support he needs in the House, but admits prospects in the Senate are uncertain. And he said a colleague told him the Conference was actively opposing the bill: “The ink isn’t even dry on this report, and they’re out there lobbying legislators.”

Rozzi said the insurance industry, whose members could be on the hook if they had to pay out judgments in court cases, also was opposing the bill. 

Amy Hill, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, said the conference couldn’t comment on Bennington’s account of its lobbying efforts, which were carried out under a leader who has since retired. Asked about the Conference’s position on Rozzi’s bill, she said, “The time to discuss legislation will come later.”

“We are devastated and outraged by the revelations of terrible sexual abuse crimes committed in the Catholic Church,” she said. “Our focus now is on improving ways that survivors and their families can recover.”

She also provided the Pennsylvania ChildLine phone number for reporting abuse: 1-800-932-0313.

According to lobbying disclosure reports, the Conference has spent slightly less than $55,000 in a typical month on lobbying in the past decade. That doesn’t make the conference a big player – a group representing the Marcellus Shale gas-drilling industry, for example, has typically spent two-and-a-half times that much.

Most of the Conference's spending focused on  "indirect lobbying" -- public outreach efforts on policy issues before government -- rather than direct conversations with officials.

But since late 2017, the Conference has spent more than $79,000 a month. And it retains some of Harrisburg’s most influential lobbying outfits, including Long Nyquist, a firm noted for its ties to Republican leadership in the state Senate. Partners Michael Long and Todd Nyquist previously worked for Senate president pro tempore Joseph Scarnati, whose own proposal to roll back the time limits on lawsuits is at odds with Rozzi's.

State filings show the Conference’s efforts are financed by church entities including the Diocese of Pittsburgh. The filings show the church lobbies on roughly 40 topics, ranging from food service and motor vehicles to civil rights and “Prevention of Child Abuse.”

DeWeese, who is now a lobbyist in Harrisburg after being convicted of using legislative resources for political work, said none of that may be enough. The grand-jury report, he said, is a legislative Hiroshima:  In one searing moment the world changed, and I don’t think it’s ever going back.”

Bennington agreed that the report could be the impetus for change. Still, she hadn’t yet studied it deeply herself. More than a decade after her own efforts failed, she said, “To know that he church continued to do nothing --  I can’t do it.”

She said her bill’s fate played a big part in her decision to leave Harrisburg.

“If we can’t protect victims of abuse,” she said, “then what is the purpose of government?”