HARRISBURG, Pa. – Survivors of clergy sexual abuse are up against big money in politics as they push for criminal and justice reform. A recent report showed the Catholic Church spent $10.6 million lobbying in northeast states since 2011. FOX43 Reveals how much money the Church paid out to lobby lawmakers in Pennsylvania, fighting bills that would have helped child sexual abuse survivors like the Fortney sisters.
The five Fortney sisters have gone public with their story of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a trusted priest after they were silenced for nearly three decades.
“We were made to believe it was just us,” said Lara Fortney-McKeever.
In August 2018, a blockbuster grand jury report changed the trajectory of their story. The Fortney sisters learned there were hundreds of other children sexually abused by Catholic priests. The sisters’ traumatic stories of abuse were also detailed in that report.
“To know how many people are living the torture that you’ve lived, it’s shocking,” Theresa Fortney-Miller said through tears. “But it kind of makes you feel like you’re not alone too.”
Now, the Fortney sisters are voices for change. They are fighting to get rid of the criminal statute of limitations in Pennsylvania and open a 2-year revival window for survivors of sexual abuse to bring civil claims. Current Pennsylvania law allows victims of child sex abuse to come forward with criminal allegations until the age of 50 and can file civil claims until the age of 30.
“The Catholic Church, not the people but the hierarchy, has made it a Catholic issue with the millions of dollars that they have used to pay lobbyists that are right here [by the Capitol],” said Fortney-McKeever. “They have enough money, they have enough power to do it. So it all comes down to money and power. Survivors are struggling.”
A recent report revealed the Catholic Church spent more than $5.3 million in Pennsylvania, from 2011 to 2018, trying to influence the votes of lawmakers on a number of issues. Those issues include civil justice, crime victim assistance, criminal justice, courts, and liability reform. FOX43 asked the Diocese of Harrisburg about the Church’s lavish spending pattern.
“That report is not accurate. I don’t know where they got their numbers, but it’s not accurate,” responded Michael Barley, a spokesperson for the Diocese of Harrisburg.
However, FOX43 Reveals dug through records from the PA Department of State to verify those numbers and found the Church’s lobbying expenses jumped from $529,272 in 2011 to $786,844 in 2012 following the release of a 2011 Philadelphia Grand Jury report on clergy sexual abuse.
In 2018, The Archdiocese of Philadelphia singlehandedly spent $291,674 on lobbying firms between October and December—right after the release of a second grand jury report, which identified 301 “predator priests” in six diocese who were alleged to have abused more than 1,000 children. Between January and March in 2019, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia doled out another $138,972 to lobbying firms.
Though the Diocese of Harrisburg has spent significantly less than any other diocese in the state, Barley defends the Church’s right to lobby.
He told FOX43, “The Church lobbies on many things, including this last session on increased funds for families to send their children to a parochial school or a catholic school, for adoption services, for pro-life causes.”
According to state records FOX43 Reveals obtained, the Church also lobbied against any change to the statute of limitations – a detail of particular interest to lawyer Gerald Williams of Williams Cedar, LLC.
“These lobbying dollars, not all of them, but a significant portion of them, were spent specifically to keep survivors from airing the facts relating to their abuse,” said Williams.
Williams represents clergy abuse survivors nationwide. His Philadelphia office is stacked with binders that catalog their disturbing stories of alleged abuse. Those stories continue to shake the Catholic Church even after it paid millions of dollars in settlements and added new prevention programs.
“But what these programs don’t do, Rachel, is bring out the facts,” asserted Williams. “The facts that will tell everyone why this abuse happened, why it was facilitated by the hierarchy, and how it was covered up for many years.”
Cover-up allegations have rattled catholic parishioners, whose religious faith has been the bedrock of their lives. Bishops across the country are crusading to rebuild the broken trust.
“The people here right now are doing the right things,” explained Barley. “They are taking every precaution to make sure our children are safe within the church and we want to help people.”
Helping people has since become the mission of the Fortney sisters. The family is channeling their energy into their organization FortneysForHealing.org. The website gives other abuse survivors a platform to share their stories with the outside world in the hopes of driving change from inside the Catholic Church.
“All we can do is plead for the public and the Catholic faithful within the Church to rise up and demand change, because we cannot compete with the politicians,” said Saundra Fortney-Colello. “We just can’t do that.”
"FortneysForHealing" continues to garner more support from survivors and victim advocates. For more information on how to get involved in the organization, click here.
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