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Family of five Dauphin County sisters abused by same priest file lawsuit against Catholic dioceses

Patriot-News - 12/2/2019

Two members of a Dauphin County family of five sisters who were sexually abused as children by a trusted family priest are seeking to bring to court the two Catholic dioceses at the heart of their abuse.

Patty Fortney-Julius and Lara Fortney-McKeever on Monday filed a civil lawsuit in New Jersey against the Archdiocese of Newark and the Diocese of Harrisburg. The lawsuit takes advantage of New Jersey’s newly enacted civil window legislation.

The lawsuit outlines the sexual abuse of the members of the Fortney family at the hands of former Newark Archdiocese priest Augustine Giella, and the cover-up of his crimes by the dioceses in that city and Harrisburg.

Giella was transferred to the Harrisburg Diocese, where he met the Fortney family. He sexually abused the Fortney sisters in Pennsylvania and on trips to his New Jersey summer home.

“I‘m feeling amazing,” said Patty Fortney-Julius on Monday. “Finally our family is going to get the discovery here in New Jersey that we have needed for so long in order to put the missing pieces back into the puzzle. I feel empowered. I‘m looking forward to being able to get answers to so many questions.”

Their attorney, Benjamin Andreozzi, said discovery could take up to two years, and would require the Diocese of Harrisburg to turn over every document related to predatory priests.

“I anticipate hundreds of thousands of documents,” Andreozzi said.

A written statement released by the Harrisburg Diocese read: “Our attorneys have not received or reviewed this complaint and as such, it would be inappropriate for us to comment at this time. Bishop Gainer has personally apologized to the Fortney family, and to all survivors of clergy abuse, for the abuse they suffered. The Fortney family, as well as all survivors of child abuse, have access to professional therapy and counseling services, at no cost to them, through the Diocese. The Diocese of Harrisburg will continue to do all we can to support survivors of child sexual abuse and to ensure all youth in our care are safe.”

Several members of the Fortney family on Monday held a press conference with Andreozzi in Newark, the seat of Essex County, where the lawsuit was filed.

The Fortney lawsuit coincides with the effective date of New Jersey’s new statute of limitations law, widely regarded as the broadest law in the nation.

The measure, signed by Gov. Phil Murphy in May, extends the state’s statute of limitations for sex-abuse lawsuits and opens a temporary, two-year window to file suit based on previously expired claims. The law extends the civil suit parameters against predators and the nonprofit organizations that employed them.

“We came to Newark because that’s where the story starts and it is our position that’s where the story should have ended,” Andreozzi said.

The Fortneys contend that the Diocese of Harrisburg and the Archdiocese of Newark were negligent and reckless in allowing the priest to have access to the Fortney family.

The five sisters, part of an 11-member family raised in Dauphin County, were sexually abused by Giella in the 1980s. The family, which largely lived in silence for 26 years, began to share their story with media outlets after their abuse was detailed in the 2018 grand jury report.

The grand jury - empaneled by Pa. Attorney General Josh Shapiro - found widespread and systemic abuse of minors by Catholic priests across Pennsylvania over more than six decades. The report detailed horrific accounts of abuse of the Fortney sisters at the hands of Giella.

The youngest, Carolyn Fortney, testified she was just 18 months old when Giella was transferred to St. John the Evangelist Church in Swatara Township, after serving for decades in New Jersey.

Fortney told the grand jury Giella began abusing her almost immediately.

Giella would come to sexually abuse five of the sisters. He died in 1993 at age 72 while awaiting trial.

Police found in his home girls’ underwear, vials of urine, and photos of naked children, including Carolyn Fortney, the youngest of the siblings.

Pennsylvania last month joined the ranks of states that have enacted reforms to child sex crime laws. Gov. Tom Wolf signed into law broad reform measures approved in the Legislature after years of defeat and opposition, easing up restrictive child sex crime laws and give victims of sexual assault more time to file lawsuits against their abusers.

Pennsylvania’s newly enacted law abolishes the criminal statute of limitations on childhood sex abuse and extends the amount of time victims have to file civil actions against their abusers to age 55. Victims who experienced sexual abuse between the ages 18-24 now have until the age of 30 to file a civil suit.

Another measure - an amendment to the state Constitution - would give victims long barred from taking legal action against predators the opportunity to file civil lawsuits. Voters must ultimately approve the constitutional amendment.

Other measures increase penalties for failing to report child abuse by a mandated reporter; and makes conversations with law enforcement exempt from non-disclosure agreements.

Patty Fortney-Julius said she ultimately hopes the dioceses are forced to open every archive on predatory priests.

“We need to know what happened to us and who knew what when and where,” she said. “We’re never going to get back the years they stole from our families and the joy from those years. But today starts hopefully a new path for our families by taking back the power that was taken from us.”

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