Advocates for sex abuse survivors say they’re still waiting for change in Pennsylvania

In Pittsburgh, an increase of calls to helplines is expected this weekend.

Sarah Anne Hughes / The Incline

For Jennifer Storm, the past week has been hectic. And busy. And very emotional.

As Pennsylvania’s victim advocate, Storm has for years worked with most of the survivors who flanked Attorney General Josh Shapiro this week as he announced the findings of a grand jury report on sexual abuse by Catholic priests.

For Storm, who has served in that role since 2013, Tuesday’s release was a moment of vindication as survivors finally had their pain recognized and “honored.”

“That day was such a day of reckoning for them,” she said.

The attention given to — and horrific details inside — the grand jury report on 301 “predator priests” in six Pennsylvania dioceses was validating for many victims, but it can also disrupt the process of life-long healing for victims, experts warned.

“When Josh Shapiro gave his press conference and spoke so clearly about the responsibility on the church, that is not the story [survivors] heard before from people in authority,” said Kristy Trautmann, executive director of FISA Foundation, an organization focused on improving the lives of women, girls, and people with disabilities. “Having these crimes be believed is monumental to survivors.”

That’s because many survivors don’t have the option of pursuing their case through the courts either because it’s been too long, there’s not enough evidence or because they don’t feel able to air the details.

But hearing or reading such vivid descriptions from the grand jury report can also be profoundly triggering, said Trautmann, who’s also a member of the leadership team for Southwest PA Says No More.

Kristen Houser, chief public affairs officer for Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, agreed. Knowing the real ways that an institution left people in harm’s way can open feelings of vulnerability and outrage and can cause people to question their faith, Houser said. Healing is “not a linear process and doesn’t have an end point.”

And while victim advocates have noticed that more people are willing to talk about experiences of sexual assault, they said it’s too soon to tell if this grand jury report will bring accountability from institutions and changes for how and when survivors can come forward.

‘The only ones who are listening for the longest time’

Pennsylvania’s Office of Victim Advocate serves people affected by crime in a number of ways, including post-sentencing.

Storm’s role as the state’s official victim advocate gives her more flexibility to work on legislative and policy goals. For several years, Storm has joined forces with Rep. Mark Rozzi, a Berks County Democrat who himself is a clergy victim, and other survivors to change the statute of limitations for child sex abuse.

At the moment, survivors who were children when the abuse occurred can bring a criminal case until they’re 50 and a civil case until age 30. That window is much smaller for victims 18 and older — just two years for civil suits.

In addition to the legislative work, Storm also referred some of the survivors to the attorney general’s office and private attorneys. This week, her office released a statement on behalf of five sisters who were abused by a priest. She’s been working with the Fortney family for years.

“We’re really there to meet them where they’re at,” Storm said of survivors. “Victim advocates are the only ones who are listening for the longest time.”

Some of the Fortney sisters were on stage with Shapiro during Tuesday’s announcement, when the attorney general detailed graphic abuse allegations. Storm said that was “done in consultation with those impacted,” and added that “people need to hear those really hard details.”

“Those really hard details to hear will call people to action,” she said.

Abuse is an isolating experience, so seeing and hearing other stories can be an important part of healing, Trautmann said. But so is deciding what’s helpful, rather than harmful, for you. That includes how much victims want to read and hear about the grand jury report.

“It’s very individual, and there is no rule,” she said.

Within roughly 24 hours of the report’s release, Shapiro tweeted that his office received more than 150 messages from victims.

Trautmann said that often after big news stories like this, there is an uptick in survivors who are looking for resources.

In Pittsburgh, leaders at the Center for Victims and Pittsburgh Action Against Rape are preparing for an increase in helpline calls.

After any of these high profile stories, the increase in calls usually doesn’t happen immediately, said Allison Hall, executive director of PAAR. If past trends hold true, she expects the increase in calls this weekend.

Storm noted that there are resources for survivors in all 67 counties, including rape crisis centers or special units within district attorney offices. That’s a direct result of the Philadelphia and Altoona-Johnstown diocese grand jury reports, which found similarly widespread abuse and cover-ups.

“We have been keenly aware a lack of trauma therapists … specifically suited for male survivors,” she said. “We’ve done a great job of pushing funding out.”

In addition to the helpline, PAAR offers crisis counseling, which takes walk-ins, Hall said.

Every year, PAAR serves more than 3,000 people and that includes a lot of male survivors, she said, adding that although the issues they face many be different — such as believing the misconception that sexual violence victims are only female. However, even if the issues are different, the starting resources for male survivors are the same, she said.

One of the things that survivors learn with the help and support of organizations like PAAR are coping skills, because triggers — like the news of the grand jury report — are going to happen, Hall said. But she added that it’s important to survivors to share their stories and have them heard.

The people on the other end of the phone are trained to meet victims where they are, Houser said. Some callers ask, “Am I crazy to feel this strongly this many years later?” and the answer is no, that’s normal, she stressed.

“Hotlines can be good, safe ways to take a first step,” Trautmann said, because callers don’t have to give their name or name others. They can just call to share their feelings and have someone listen while they cry.

Friends and family of victims can call as well and ask for advice on what to do and say to be supportive, she said. After news like the grand jury report, it’s also a time when other people are examining their actions and wondering if they said the wrong thing or didn’t believe someone who came to them. They can go back and tell victims that they believe them and want to support their healing, Trautmann said.

Everyone likely has someone in their lives that who has experienced child abuse, she said. One thing people can do is express support for survivors in conversations about the grand jury report. It shows others you are there for them and would believe them.

Houser said the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape has had an increase in requests for information about prevention from people and organizations who want to do trainings and learn more about how to stop sexual violence in their schools or workplaces.

“When you do nothing you are part of the problem, when you cover it up, you are part of the problem, when you tell people to stop speaking out that perpetuates the problem,” Houser said.

Not yet a tipping point

The victim advocates agreed that they are starting to see a shift in the way sexual violence is viewed. More people are willing to speak up about their experiences. And news like the grand jury report continues a conversation about what it means for institutions to cover it up, she said, adding that the public is much less tolerant of that than in the past, Trautmann said.

“I believe that we are experiencing a sea change in understanding and talking about sexual violence,” she said. A big part of that is connecting people and making resources available so survivors know abuse wasn’t their fault.

“That’s the weight that many survivors carry,” she said, adding the shame and guilt is some the perpetrators cultivate.

Houser said she’s starting to see the shame that keeps people silent erode and more people willing to share their experiences, but she’s not willing to say this is a tipping point. “I’m waiting to see real change.”

The Pa. General Assembly has failed to enact the recommendations of multiple grand juries from the last decade, and all the reports have been clear about providing an opportunity for people to come forward when they were barred before, she said.

Now that the grand jury’s report is out, Storm and her fellow advocates are gearing up for the legislature to return from summer break in September. House Leader Dave Reed said he expects the chamber to vote this fall on Senate Bill 261, which would extend and eliminate statutes of limitation in child sex abuse cases. Storm said she wants to ensure any bill passed “fits the recommendations of the report.”

Storm believes the General Assembly will finally pass “common sense reforms” — after several grand jury reports have essentially uncovered the same wrongdoing.

“Politics have played a really strong role” in why a bill hasn’t been passed yet, Storm said. And if she’s “brutally honest,” so has the Catholic Church, which has put millions of dollars behind lobbying efforts.

“I don’t know how many more reports they need.”

In Allegheny County:

  • Center for Victims’ 42-crisis hotline: 1-866-644-2882
  • Pittsburgh Action Against Rape: 1-866-363-7273

Outside Allegheny County:

To contact Shapiro’s office:

  • Office of the Attorney General clergy abuse hotline: 1-888-538-8541