Mark Rozzi dropped out of college and was working at his family’s window and door installation company when a tragic life event inspired him to make a drastic career change and enter politics.
He did it for one reason: justice.
Rozzi had vowed when he was 13 never to speak of what happened to him when he was a boy. He wouldn’t tell anyone that a priest at his parochial school in Berks County, Pa., had lured him with McDonald’s, beer and pornography for weeks before raping him in a rectory shower.
He buried his secret, but he says the shame and the guilt were always there, haunting his dreams and fueling his depression.
But in March 2009, when a second childhood friend who also had been a victim of the priest’s abuse killed himself, Rozzi was inconsolable. He blamed himself for not telling someone.
Maybe then he could have stopped it from happening to his friends and the dozens of others, who later accused the Rev. Edward Graff of abusing them. He also worried that the darkness he carried inside him would one day kill him, too.
As he slowly picked himself back up from the throes of his deepest depression, he decided to end his silence. His friends’ memories deserved more.
Five years later, Rozzi stood on the chamber floor of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives last week, in his second term as an elected official, and made an emotional appeal to his colleagues to support a bill that would remove the statute of limitations on criminal and civil charges in child abuse cases.
The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, the policy arm of the state’s Catholic bishops, supports lifting the criminal statute of limitations but not the civil, on the grounds that expanding the time limit for lawsuits poses a risk of crippling litigation for parishes, schools and other ministries of today’s Catholics, “who are in no way responsible for abuse that occurred decades ago.”
The conference also objects that the proposal does not apply in full to public facilities such as schools, juvenile detention facilities or county foster care programs, where abuse also occurred.
(The bill partially lifts the immunity of public facilities, allowing victims to receive up to $200,000 from the state government and $500,000 from local governments if they can show “gross negligence” by officials. There’s no such damages cap for private institutions.)
Quite apart from the policy merits of the bill, for Rozzi it’s a deeply personal quest.
Before the April 12 vote, Rozzi didn’t prepare any remarks. So he didn’t know that in that moment, with his colleagues a captive audience, he would grip the lectern and speak candidly and in detail about his own rape. That he’d feel moved to pay remembrance to his boyhood friends who’d killed themselves when the burden of their abuse was too much to bear.
As he began to speak, the chamber, normally abuzz with side conversations, fell silent.
“I have struggled every day of my life. All I want is justice,” Rozzi said in his floor speech, his voice heavy but composed. “I want justice for all my friends who have been sexually abused.”
Before Rozzi decided to run for public office, he reached out to his local state representative in Berks County, Pa., and asked what the government was doing for victims. A few years earlier, a grand jury had first revealed the rampant child abuse in the Philadelphia Catholic diocese, but a bill to remove the statue of limitations on criminal charges and lengthen them for civil cases languished in the state capitol. Rozzi visited the then-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, who told him that the bill would never pass.
In the representative’s office hung pictures of bishops and the pope, Rozzi said – a not-so-subtle reminder of where allegiances lay.
When he left that meeting, “I was sobbing like a little baby, my wife was trying to get a hold of me,” Rozzi said in a phone interview last week. “I knew from that moment on that I was going to find a way to get to the House of Representatives.”
Before he began his campaign in 2013, he visited his mother and for the first time told her everything. She apologized to her grown son for not protecting him. His father had died years earlier without knowing the whole truth, only that his son was tortured by something.
“I believe he died of a broken heart,” Rozzi said as he wept.
Then Rozzi went public with his story, going door to door in his district with one message: “I was sexually abused, my friends are killing themselves, and I’m going to the House of Representatives to change the laws.”
When Rozzi was in the eighth grade in 1984, Graff befriended him and started inviting him on trips to McDonald’s and offering him rides home from school. Then, instead of taking him home he’d take him to his private room in the rectory.
There, Rozzi said, Graff gave him beers and showed him pornography under the guise of teaching him about sex. The abuse escalated gradually until the afternoon he raped Rozzi. The boy broke free and ran, gathering his scattered clothes. He hid in bushes along the way, afraid Graff would come after him.
In 2002, Graff, who had been transferred to a diocese in Texas after a stint in a treatment facility for alcohol addiction, was arrested on child abuse charges. Back then, a spokesman for the Allentown, Pa., diocese, of which he was a member when he worked at Rozzi’s school, said that there had been rumors of potential misconduct, but that “there was never a victim, nothing like that,” according to a Dallas Morning News article.
Graff died in jail.
When Rozzi started telling his story publicly, others began opening up to him about their abuse. Some said he was the first person they’d ever told. Each story was another affirmation that he was taking on the right fight.
His first few years in government were frustrating, with little appetite among lawmakers to challenge the lobbyists representing Catholic organizations. In Maryland this month, a state lawmaker who had been abused by his stepfather when he was a boy tried to change statue-of-limitation laws. His emotional appeal to his colleagues couldn’t move the debate.
But in Pennsylvania last month, another grand jury investigation found the Altoona-Johnstown diocese around Pittsburgh had allegedly hid decades of sexual abuse by priests and other Catholic leaders. Suddenly there was an urgency to do something to respond.
Even Rep. Thomas Caltagirone, the man whom Rozzi met with in 2009 and who said it would never pass, voted for it. He put out a powerful statement in March that “after many hours of soul searching, praying and deliberations,” he was supporting Rozzi’s bill.
Last week, the bill passed the House overwhelmingly.
“I’ve been waiting since 2009 for the opportunity to stand in front of them,” Rozzi said in a tearful interview Thursday. The support felt like “the protection I didn’t receive when I was 13,” he said. Still Rozzi couldn’t bring himself to celebrate. “I wanted my friends back,” he said. “I wanted my friends around me.”
The debate is far from over. The fight will now go to the state Senate, which has not yet said whether it will take up the legislation. The work has given Rozzi a mission, and a way to channel everything he held inside for so many years.
“I’d always thought the only time this would be off my mind is the day I’d take my last breath. That’s when the pain would stop,” he said.
The pain is still raw, as though the abuse happened days and not decades ago. But Rozzi has a brighter outlook now.
“Its about protecting the past, present, future,” he said. “We can’t change it, but we can make it right.”