Pennsylvania lawmaker on his crusade against pedophile priests — and his past as an abuse survivor

State Rep. Mark Rozzi has called for resignations throughout the Catholic hierarchy, including Pope Francis himself

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published September 9, 2018 6:00AM (EDT)

Mark Rozzi (AP/Marc Levy)
Mark Rozzi (AP/Marc Levy)

Readers are advised that this article contains an explicit discussion of sexual abuse.

Last month, a grand jury report was released in Pennsylvania revealing that more than 300 pedophile priests had sexually abused over 1,000 victims in the state since 1947. When the story broke, I reached out to Pennsylvania state Rep. Mark Rozzi, a Democrat who represents a district in Berks County, just northeast of Philadelphia. He is fighting for legislation that will help child sex abuse victims receive justice, and who has said he was sexually abused by a priest when he was a child.

During our interview, we discussed the inordinate power of the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania politics. Rozzi, who still identifies as a Catholic, told me, "There's no doubt that the Catholic Conference, the legislative arm of the Catholic Church, is out there spending millions." When an earlier version of Rozzi's bill passed the Pennsylvania House and went to the state Senate, he said, "They hired 39 lobbyists to work 50 senators. How do victims even compare to that?"

Salon followed up with Rozzi this week to discuss his personal experiences as a survivor, as well as the future of legislative efforts to bring about justice for those who have been terribly wronged. He is currently trying to raise money for a TV spot promoting a clause in Pennsylvania's bill that would help past victims decide whether to pursue cases against their perpetrators.

What were the experiences you had as a child that made you aware of these issues and made you so passionate about them?

Well, I can really take it back to one single day when it all started. It was a Friday and we had school mass at around 10 o'clock in the morning and the church was packed. I was sitting with my class and Father [Edward] Graff was serving Mass. I can remember, now looking back, I can remember that he was drunk. During the middle of the Mass he decided that he was going to start walking down the aisle and screaming at somebody in the church. When he got down to my pew, he stopped and started screaming at me and pointed me out, that I wasn't paying attention, that I was talking. He was just screaming at me in front of everybody.

As soon as Mass was over, he went back up front and my teacher said, “You've got to stick around and talk to Father Graff.” What I did, I went up front and then he put his arm around me and told me that everything was going to be OK and that we were going to have to work through some things. I could help out around the church and he would work, do different things with me and get me straight. I tell people that was the day that he had me, he could have asked me to do anything. I just wanted to prove to this guy that I was this good kid. I don't even know why he singled me out and the church at that time. I was sitting there and was part of this grooming process.

So he got me back on my heels, where I would have done anything for the priest, and then from that moment on, after serving Mass he would take me to McDonald's or take me into the city to get his horse racing gambler magazine. He'd take us to Penn National [race course] once in a while. First time he had me into his room, our first secret was that he wanted to know if I wanted a beer. I was like, wow, I'm 13: "This is great, give me a beer." He was like, "This has to be our secret. Your parents probably don't want you to have this," and I was like, "Absolutely, I won't tell anybody."

He gave me that beer and next thing you know, he's putting on a pornography movie and asking what I knew about sex and that's how innocent our first day in his room ended though, and I never thought nothing of it. Then the second time and the third time, the fourth time back in this room got a little bit more intense. He would get me into his middle room where he would eventually get my pants off and started touching me and then taking pictures and taking measurements. He was going to chart the growth of my penis as part of our sex education.

But then there was the last day when he took me into the room. I was serving Mass with my other childhood friend Tom and he asks us both to come back in the room that day. He was giving us tons of alcohol, and eventually got us in the back room and had us naked, and told Tom to go back in the front room. Father Graff started putting me in different sexual positions so I would know what these sex things were, so that when I would have these situations with girls I wouldn't be uncomfortable.

One of the last positions he put me in was the 69 position. He started performing oral sex on me and he wanted me to reciprocate. When I did, he got up out of the bed and grabbed me by my arm and pulled me into the bathroom. He had Tom come over from the living room and stand outside the bathroom door as he took me into the bathroom and started raping me. During that process, I had to make a decision whether I was going to stay in there and take this. I didn't know what to do. I decided to run, and I just remember running out of the bathroom and looking at Tom and saying, "We have to get the hell out of here." We just started grabbing all our clothes and running through the halls of the rectory. The other people in the building didn't even know we were in there.

Father Graff was coming out screaming and chasing us, telling us we better keep our mouths shut. When we got to the bottom of the steps and we got dressed, we just looked at each other and I said, “You know, don't say nothing. I'll see you at school on Monday.” But we knew that Graff was still coming, we expected that he was getting in his car and going to come after us. I can remember running to the cemetery on my way home and stopping along the main road and hiding in bushes, looking for him to see if he would be coming.

Eventually I got back to my house where I thought, OK, I'm safe now. This is all good. No one's going to talk about this. As soon as I got into the house, my mom saw that I was hyperventilating and felt something wasn't right. She sat me down in a chair for over an hour, harassing me, asking me what was wrong. Finally, all I could tell her at that point was Father Graff had Tom and myself in the room and he had a towel on and he dropped it. My mom's like, "What else? Tell me, it's OK." I could never say anything else.

I told her enough where she would never let me go back to serve another Mass and instead Monday morning came along and she decided to take me into school and talk to my principal. My mom said something to him like, “Hey, Father had Mark and Tom in the room. Something is not right. My son's not telling me. I just know that something happened.” He said that he would look into it and he never did anything. My mom called another priest at the time and talked to him and nothing was ever done about it.

At that point, I was kind of almost happy because I figured, “Oh my God, when people find out, what would they think?” It was going to be humiliating. I had this amazing guilt like I'm the one who did this. I was scared that he was going to hurt my family. I had a lot of emotions running through my head and said I just wanted to bury it and pretend like, whatever just happened, that I didn't even know if it was wrong or right. I tell people, when I'm in that shower getting raped, you even think I know what a statute of limitations is? and my statutes at that time were that I only had two years civilly and five years criminally to come forward. I had to sue them by 15 and I had to criminally prosecute by 18, when you don't even know what the statute is as a child.

Right there just the unfairness, knowing that the church knew what these statutes were. They were protecting these predators and waited these statutes out. My priest was at 12 different parishes before he even got to my school. We put his numbers [of abuse victims] at around 200. It's insane what they knew, and eventually I went on to high school and struggled through my freshman year. My parents eventually pulled me out of Catholic school and sent me to public school.

In 1988, they finally removed Graff from my parochial school and sent him to a place called the Servants of the Paraclete in Jimenez Springs, New Mexico, which was established in 1947 to treat sexually abusive priests. They sent him there and then after about a year or so, they said he was rehabbing. They put him into the Amarillo [Texas] diocese where he sexually abused about 20 other children. [Graff was later convicted of child abuse charges in Texas, and died in prison in the early 2000s.]

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What would you like to say to other people who were abused in the past and who feel any mixture of emotions, be it unwarranted shame or fear or doubt about coming forward? What strength can you give them based on what you've learned through your own experiences?

That it's definitely not our fault. We're not the ones who asked for this. We're not the ones who caused this problem. And just to be strong and be brave, be courageous and stand up and be heard. Let the truth out. Let these people know that we are coming for them and I can promise that your voice will not be the only one out there. There's many of us and together we will stand united to make sure that all these predators are exposed.

Do you think there is any prejudice against male victims that makes it uniquely difficult for them to come forward? I would be reluctant to say "more difficult" because there is a great deal of systemic misogyny in our culture. But do you think that for male victims, in particular, that there are unique challenges?

Absolutely. I mean, a lot of us will question our sexuality or just the embarrassment of the situation. You don't want people to find out about it, especially when you find out that at the time you don't know it's wrong. You're just listening to this guy who you're supposed to trust and guess what, it feels good too, but you have no idea what's right or wrong at that age. I guess the toughest pill to swallow is that the laws had protected these perps and we had no shot.

Have you experienced any prejudice toward you as a male victim professionally, particularly in your job as a member of the Pennsylvania General Assembly?

Yes, absolutely. When you deal with some of these senators, you will realize where they are professionally on this issue because of how they will ... First of all, [president pro tem of the Pennsylvania State Senate Joe] Scarnati won't even have an appointment with me. I try to schedule a talk to him and get into his office and he hasn't met with me or any victims, which is disheartening, when I know he's meeting with the lobbyists who are supporting killing these recommendations. You have a senator who won't even meet with the victims. It’s discouraging.

Other members tell me that this one member, who was drunk at the time, started to spew off about how, "Poor Rep. Rozzi, that poor victim, and now he's trying to pass bad legislation that we have to fix in the Senate," and just demeaning me. It is tough because you figure you come to this place where you will have people who will fight for justice for you and for these victims, and then you come across a senator who basically just puts you under her shoe and squashes you. That's disgusting.


What are the contents of your bill in terms of how it will help, past victims, and then present victims?

The way the bill stands right now, only if you're a victim in the future will this bill help you. Now, what I do plan to do is when the House majority leader calls up the bill, I plan to amend it with my gut and replacement amendment. I'm still going to have the criminal elimination [of the statute of limitations] in there. I'm going to do civil 30 to 50 [years], but I'm also going to put a two-year window in there for everybody, not just Catholic clergy victims, but any child whose statutes have run out in the past, we'll be able to bring a civil lawsuit forward within two years. It’ll be a two-year window.

I'm sure you're familiar with the calls for Pope Francis to step down or at the very least, be held accountable for allegedly knowing abuse and not acting on it. Are you familiar with that story? What are your thoughts?

Well, again, if we expect our bishops to be accountable for covering up child sex abuse, so does the pope need to be held accountable.

Do you think resignation is necessary?

There should probably be a mass resignation across the church and all across the hierarchy, including the pope, quite honestly. The only way to ever get past this with the church will be to purge these people who think that they're above the law.

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Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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