How Some Sex Abuse Victims Are Finding Different Ways To Sue Clergy In Pennsylvania

Nov 22, 2019
Copyright 2019 WHYY. To see more, visit WHYY.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The #MeToo movement and revelations around child sexual abuse have prompted lawmakers across the U.S. to extend the window to sue for old sexual assaults. Pennsylvania's Legislature just passed a bill that would move forward a constitutional amendment that allows these suits. But that process can take years. From member station WHYY, Laura Benshoff reports on a group of victims who are not waiting for that to happen to sue the Catholic Church.

LAURA BENSHOFF, BYLINE: Last year, while he was being treated for kidney failure, 57-year-old Jon Patchcoski glanced at the television in his hospital room.

JON PATCHCOSKI: That was when I noticed on CNN that it said that, like, a thousand kids were molested, raped, sodomized in the state of Pennsylvania.

BENSHOFF: That news item was about a sweeping grand jury report mapping out sexual abuse by priests over the course of 70 years. Patchcoski, who grew up outside Scranton, Pa., has his own story. When he was around 11 years old, Patchcoski says a priest named Father Michael Pullicare invited him on a fishing trip and then pinned him down and sexually assaulted him.

PATCHCOSKI: I remember laying there and tears just rolling down my eyes and not being able to move.

BENSHOFF: Pullicare is on the Diocese of Scranton's list of credibly accused clergy. The priest died in 1999. Decades later, lying in his hospital bed, Patchcoski resolved to do something. He started talking about what happened to him and learned that other men he grew up with had similar accounts. Patchcoski says what made him want to sue is finding out that the church had started offering lump-sum payments to victims.

PATCHCOSKI: The anger inside of me that the church would actually have the gall to bring up a victims fund and tell you what you're worth and tell you what it was like to live for 40-some years with all this.

BENSHOFF: But there was a problem.

RICHARD SERBIN: I lost a number of cases in court, not on the merits of whether my client was abused but before I could proceed with the case, based on the statute of limitations.

BENSHOFF: That's attorney Richard Serbin. He's been suing the Catholic Church for 32 years. Under Pennsylvania law, if you're sexually abused as a child, you have to bring a lawsuit by the time you turn 30. Serbin decided to try something different; he began suing not for the abuse itself but for church leaders' efforts to cover it up.

SERBIN: That the diocese knew about it and had a duty to speak up and instead remained silent.

BENSHOFF: He based those claims on information in reports from grand juries that investigated the Catholic church in Pennsylvania. Earlier this year, a state appeals court said his first case can go to trial, and at least a dozen other cases have now followed. Matt Haverstick represents the Diocese of Harrisburg against several of those claims and says they're just too old to defend against.

MATT HAVERSTICK: In the case of, at least, Harrisburg and one of the claims, conspiracy is, you know, 40, 50, maybe 60 years old.

BENSHOFF: The priests and bishops involved are often dead, and evidence is hard to come by. Earlier this year, four men with claims against Father Michael Pullicare filed a lawsuit against the Diocese of Scranton, the current bishop and a former bishop. John Patchcoski was among them.

PATCHCOSKI: Just because Pullicare is deceased, it doesn't change any fact, from the bishops or anybody else that was involved in all this, that they should pay for what they did.

BENSHOFF: After Patchcoski filed the lawsuit, the Diocese of Scranton released a statement saying current leadership was ordained long after the alleged abuse took place.

For NPR News, I'm Laura Benshoff in Philadelphia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENRICO CONIGLIO AND FRIENDS' "SPRAWL II") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.