WILKES-BARRE — Mark Rozzi was 13 when a Catholic priest brutally raped him in the shower more than 30 years ago.
Now 47 and a state representative, Rozzi is leading the fight to give all victims of past sexual abuse the right to seek justice.
He has proposed an amendment to Senate Bill 261 that would create a two-year window for adults who were abused as children to come forward, regardless of when the abuse took place.
Rozzi brought his fight, and his story, to the Times Leader for an interview Wednesday morning.
“I don’t want to hear anybody saying they are taking responsibility for what happened to victims,” the Berks County Democrat said. “We’ve heard that for 30 years.”
The bill could be voted on by the state House this fall, but Rozzi and supporters — including state Rep. Aaron Kaufer, R-Kingston, who joined him Wednesday — are concerned the two-week window for voting on amendments when the session resumes could put Rozzi’s amendment in jeopardy.
When Kaufer referred to Rozzi as a “survivor,” Rozzi corrected him.
“I consider myself a victim,” Rozzi said. “I’ve never considered myself a survivor because I’m not sure I’ve made it yet. I wont say I’m a survivor until I’m sure I’ve made it.”
The man Rozzi says abused him, the late Father Edward Graff, was among 301 “predator priests” from six Pennsylvania dioceses identified in an 884-page grand jury report released Aug. 14 by state Attorney General Josh Shapiro.
Graff was a priest for 45 years, of which 35 were spent in the Allentown Diocese. He was assigned to Holy Guardian Angels, Reading, from June 1983 until February 1992.
Rozzi will never forget a Mass officiated by Graff on a Friday morning in 1983.
“In the middle of Mass, he walked down the aisle and started screaming at everybody. He singled me out and I didn’t do anything wrong,” Rozzi recalled. “I knew he was drunk.”
Rozzi said that after Mass, one of his teachers suggested he go see Graff.
“He was completely different,” Rozzi said. “He (Graff) put his arm around me and consoled me. From that point, he had me. I wanted to prove to him that I wasn’t a bad kid.”
After that, Graff would take Rozzi “everywhere,” including to several trips to a local racetrack, where Graff would bet on horse races.
One day, the relationship took a dark turn. Graff took Rozzi to his room in the rectory. He opened a beer and offered one to Rozzi, who eagerly accepted. Graff asked Rozzi to keep this a secret from his parents, and Rozzi agreed.
Rozzi said Graff began to talk about sex and he showed Rozzi pornographic movies.
“He said it was like sex education,” Rozzi said.
It was not the first such encounter, which Rozzi said progressed to Graff asking him to undress so he could fondle him and take nude photos.
“There was always a lot of alcohol involved,” Rozzi said.
After a Saturday morning Mass in 1984, Rozzi said Graff invited him and one of his friends back to his room.
Graff asked the boys to undress. This time, there was a new request. Graff encouraged the youth to pose in various sexual positions, in order to “teach” the boy how to make love to women.
Instead, Graff began to perform a sex act on Rozzi, and asked him to reciprocate.
When Rozzi hesitated, he said the angry priest grabbed him by the arm, led him into the shower and began raping him.
“I remember focusing on a little tile on the wall,” Rozzi said. “I remember thinking, ‘What I should do? I decided to run.’”
‘They never did anything’
Rozzi said he and his friend gathered their clothes and ran out of Graff’s room yelling and screaming. He said other priests had to hear them.
They kept running, through fields, hiding in bushes. He said Graff followed for a while, yelling to them to “keep your (expletive) mouths shut.”
Rozzi said the memories are vivid today. He said he had decided to never talk about what happened, but when he got home, his mother knew something was wrong. She sat him down and managed to get him to tell her part of the story.
His mother took him to school the next day and went right to the principal’s office and reported Graff’s behavior.
“They never did anything,” Rozzi said. “The police were never called.”
Rozzi said he was haunted by the experience for years. He left parochial school and enrolled in public school. He said he had recurring nightmares where he was sexually assaulted. The nightmares always ended with him jumping off a cliff. He would always wake up crying.
He often contemplated suicide. Other friends did.
“I realized I had a choice,” Rozzi said. “Either kill myself or stand up for myself.”
That fight led Rozzi to run for the Legislature. In 2012, he did and he won.
In August 1986, Graff entered the Neumann Center in Reading for what was reported as chemical dependency.
The grand jury concluded this was not solely a case of chemical dependency but that the diocese was aware of some type of sexual conduct with a minor, according to the report.
Graff was later sent to a facility in New Mexico for treatment of undefined but “serious” conduct.
On Nov. 28, 1989, the grand jury found, there was an exchange of letters between Allentown Bishop Thomas Jerome Welsh and Archbishop Robert Sanchez of the Catholic Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The subject of the letters was whether Sanchez was “aware of the seriousness of these cases.” No further details were provided.
By February 1992, Welsh had authorized Graff to retire from active ministry in the diocese, but he authorized the priest to begin ministry to the needy in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico, under the supervision the Servants of the Paraclete in Albuquerque, though he continued to receive a monthly pension, living allowance, medical and life insurance, and automobile insurance from Allentown.
In 1993, records revealed, Graff had been allowed to transfer within the Diocese of Amarillo, Texas, without informing Welsh, which alarmed Welsh.
“It had been my understanding that he was residing in a rectory, but it has now come to light that he has purchased a house. Because of his past history in this diocese, this development raises additional concerns about the potential risk surrounding Father Graff’s activity in your diocese,” Welsh warned the bishop there.
The Texan bishop responded to thank Welsh for “alerting me to the risk I may be taking,” and pledged to watch Graff more closely. It was a concern Welsh raised again in 1994. He was informed in 1995 that Graff “is well received and loved by the people who are almost totally Hispanic and among the poorest of the poor.”
After a new bishop took control in Allentown in 1997, records show no apparent attempt to keep track of Graff’s movements.
In October 2002, Graff was arrested in Briscoe County, Texas, for sexually abusing a 15 -year-old boy. He died the following month due to injuries from an accident while in a Texas prison awaiting trial. Graff was 73.
The grand jury indicated it was aware of allegations against Graff from numerous individuals, and many of the stories sounded similar to Rozzi’s account — a period of “grooming,” followed by alcohol, nude photos, masturbation, and forcible sex acts.
Expanding legal avenues for sex abuse victims to seek justice has been Rozzi’s signature issue.
He said many state legislators “are controlled by the Catholic Conference,” and that he has been met with anger, denial, doubt and intimidation in his efforts.
Rozzi said he decided to go public with his own story, first published in the Reading Eagle newspaper.
That resulted in more than 200 other victims — many he knew, coming forward to support him and his effort, Rozzi said.
Rozzi said he is determined to see this fight through to a successful end. He and Kaufer can’t understand how any legislator could oppose his amendments.
Rozzi said his life has changed because of what happened. His 19-year-old marriage is ending in divorce. He has a 21-year-old daughter.
“My wife could no longer deal with me,” he said, noting they have remained friends.
Rozzi said he knows there are many more victims out there. He wants them to come forward and tell their stories. He said what happens next is up to the state senators.
Pennsylvania law currently allows child victims of sexual crimes to pursue criminal charges against their abusers until age 50, and they can file civil lawsuits until age 30. Senate Bill 261 would eliminate the time limit for prosecutions and raise the lawsuit ceiling to age 50.
Rozzi’s amendment would provide a two-year window that would begin when the law takes effect, enabling any victim of child sex abuse to sue their abuser, no matter how long ago the crime happened.
Rozzi and Kaufer said they expect the House to vote this fall on SB261, which passed the Senate 48-0 in April. The are concerned that the window of session time to vote on the amendments is short — less than two weeks — once they return to Harrisburg on Sept. 12.
Sen. John Blake, D-Archbald, Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township, and Sen. John Yudichak, D-Plymouth Twp., all voted for the Senate bill.
J.J. Abbott, press secretary for Gov. Tom Wolf, said the governor is horrified at the abuse endured by the survivors and the systematic cover-up by powerful individuals and institutions. He said Wolf has long supported legislative reforms to protect victims and provide recourse to the abused, including earlier efforts by Rozzi.
Richard Long, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, said his agency supports SB 261, but hasn’t yet seen the text of Rozzi’s amendment, and would like to see it prior to commenting.
Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis said she supports anything that would allow her office to investigate and prosecute anyone for crimes against children.
“I can’t imagine being against this,” Salavantis said. “It takes some time for people to open up to loved ones and law enforcement about their experiences. We as prosecutors need that statute to change in order to seek justice against these predators who committed these crimes against children.”
Sen. Blake recently said he thinks it is “next to impossible” for any lawmaker not to support legislating the grand jury report recommendations to protect victims of such heinous acts. In April, Blake said the Senate unanimously passed Senate Bill 261 which would eliminate the statute of limitations in these horrible cases.
Yudichak supported Senate passage of Senate Bill 261, and he will continue to support the elimination of the criminal statute of limitations on the heinous crimes of child sex abuse.
Baker said the breadth and duration of the abuse and the cover-up is heartbreaking and disconcerting.
“I have long supported balancing the scales of justice for victims,” Baker said.
Bishop Bambera comments
Bishop Joseph Bambera of the Diocese of Scranton issued a statement:
“For all organizations entrusted with protecting children, this should be a topic of deep consideration.
“The implications of a change in the statute of limitations is certainly a complicated legal issue. I do support lifting the criminal statutes of limitations. Changing the civil statute, though, is not permitted by the state constitution. That being said, I want to promote healing for victims and the faithful within the framework in place.”
Rozzi made it clear where he stands.
“Will they (lawmakers) stand with the victims, or will they protect pedophiles?” he asked.
Staff Writer Dan Stokes contributed to this report
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.