Bucks County DA David Heckler’s Mixed Signals on Pennsylvania’s Statute of Limitations for Child Sex Abuse

Posted in: Criminal Law

As the Pennsylvania House gets closer than it has ever been to meaningful statute of limitations reform for child sex abuse victims, it is interesting to watch how prosecutors across the state are acting. As I discussed in my last column, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office and Pennsylvania Attorney General have issued a series of scathing grand jury reports on seriatim and systematic child sex abuse in major trusted institutions, like Penn State, the Philadelphia Archdiocese, and the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese. In a related though not identical arena, the Montgomery County DA’s race became a referendum on failure to prosecute Bill Cosby for rape, with the win going to the candidate who sided with the rape victims.

Other Pennsylvania district attorneys have hewn to the increasingly outdated position that they owe allegiance to the Catholic bishops, with the Allentown DA most recently expressing this sentiment.

Sadly for the vast majority of sex abuse survivors, the DAs’ discussions about whether to prosecute or to change the statute of limitations have mostly been about the Catholic bishops’ cover up. I say “sadly,” because there are other institutions putting children at risk, and they get swept away in the loud and persistent denunciations of SOL reform by the Catholic Conference.

For this reason, I will examine the strange position Bucks County DA David Heckler has taken with respect to child sex abuse and sex assault victims. His office has a pending grand jury that, if a report were issued, would make the case for SOL reform for child sex abuse victims beyond the Church. Yet the grand jury, which was initiated in the fall of 2014, has yet to issue a report, leaving many victims wondering why.

Bucks County District Attorney David Heckler Sending Mixed Signals on Child Protection

Following the Penn State grand jury report, which followed major Philadelphia Archdiocese grand jury reports, there was a hue and cry across the state for Republican Gov. Tom Corbett to do something. He formed a “Task Force” in 2012 and assigned it the following agenda:

(1) Examine and analyze the practices, processes and procedures relating to the response to child abuse;

(2) Review and analyze law, procedures, practices and rules relating to the reporting of child abuse;

(3) Hold public hearings, accept and review written comments from individuals and organizations;

(4) Submit reports which will include recommendations to improve the reporting of child abuse; implement any necessary changes in state laws and practices, policies and procedures relating to child abuse; and train appropriate individuals in the reporting of child abuse.

Despite the fact SOL reform had been under consideration and discussion in Harrisburg since 2005, nowhere in the assigned agenda of the Pennsylvania Task Force on Child Protection were the words “statute of limitations” uttered, as I discuss here.

Bucks County DA Heckler was chosen to chair the Task Force, and the committee was formed including: William Strickland, President and CEO of Manchester Bidwell Corporation; Dr. Cindy W. Christian, M.D., Director of Safe Place: The Center for Child Protection and Health, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia; Delilah Rumburg, Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center; Dr. Rachel Berger, Member of Child Protection Team at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh; Garrison Ipock Jr., Executive director, The Glen Mills Schools, Glen Mills; Carol Hobbs-Picciotto, MHS, Intake Social Worker, City of Philadelphia; Jason Kutulakis, Senior partner, Abom & Kutulakis LLP Carlisle; Jackie Bernard, Chief Deputy District Attorney, Blair County; and Hon. Arthur Grim, Senior Judge, Court of Common Pleas of Berks County. This was to be sure a distinguished gathering of child individuals and there was every reason to expect some improvements to Pennsylvania law. They diligently pursued the issues on the agenda and did make some very good recommendations to multiple laws.

The Task Force did not avoid the SOL issue altogether. While never obtaining testimony from experts or discussing whether it was a topic that should be added to the agenda, instead Heckler, as a lawyer, assured his fellow Task Force members that the Pennsylvania SOLs for child sex abuse are fine, and they needed to spend no time on it. Accordingly, in the Report, released in November 2012, the Committee spoke approvingly of the Pennsylvania SOLs: “Therefore, the Task Force believes that the current statute of limitations is adequate, given that Pennsylvania is one of the most ‘generous’ states in terms of the length of time within which an action may be commenced.” I will set aside that this statement is actually false: Pennsylvania is decidedly mediocre. Rather, what doesn’t smell right is that ever since, the Catholic Conference repeatedly has cited this line and the Task Force as authority in order to argue against any SOL reform.

Solebury School Grand Jury Investigation…Stalls

While the Task Force was deliberating, information about yet another institutional child sex abuse scandal was filtering into law enforcement in Bucks County, which indicated that the highly respected prep school, the Solebury School, may well have a problem. To Heckler’s credit, his office initiated a grand jury in fall of 2014. Reports are that dozens of women came forward alleging abuse from the very beginning of the school including by its own founder.

Given the ages of the women who came forward it seems clear that at most only one or two of those dozens of women are in statute. That means 90% or more are excluded from legal recourse. Thus, this grand jury report, if issued, could make a compelling case for SOL reform.

Now that SOL Reform seems quite real in Harrisburg, the Solebury School grand jury report remains under wraps. In light of Heckler’s statement to the Task Force and its subsequent report supporting the current mediocre SOL regime, quoted glowingly by the Catholic Conference so often, one must wonder whether Heckler is holding this report until Harrisburg fully considers SOL reform, so as to protect the status quo.

Carole Trickett, age 79, is among those women who have come forward about abuse at the Solebury School and who await the report as part of their healing. “We can hold the school responsible for a crime that was covered up for decades—that needs to be known,” Trickett said. “We were dishonored as children. Now they can show us some honor.”

On the other hand, there is a good reason why the grand jury’s work would have slowed to a crawl.

Det. Ferrari’s Legal Problems Complicate the Issue

The longtime, sole detective for the jurisdiction covering the Solebury School ran into some legal difficulties: “A former Solebury Township detective was sentenced Wednesday [March 30, 2016] to three to 23 months in the Bucks County Correctional Facility after admitting to two thefts and falsifying records to cover his tracks.” That would presumably slow down the process, although his investigation was far from the only evidence available on the sex abuse crimes at the Solebury School.

The Missing Priest Accused of Rape of an Adult in Bucks County

Yet, there is some evidence that Heckler is motivated by over-deference to the Catholic bishops, which makes suspect the delay in the publication of the report while SOL reform moves into high gear following the publication of the Altoona-Johnstown grand jury report. A deeply devout Catholic woman was sexually assaulted at the Shrine of Czestochowa by a priest from whom she was seeking spiritual guidance, and it was reported to Heckler’s office. What did his office do? Let the priest go back to his homeland of Poland.

When you add together the misleading statements about SOL in the Task Force Report, prompted by Heckler, lines frequently relied upon by the bishops to fight SOL reform, the delay in release of a grand jury report that strongly supports strong SOL reform, and the free pass to a Catholic priest accused of sexual abuse, Heckler does not come out smelling like the rose of child protection.

* In the interest of full disclosure, I was a legal consultant to the District Attorney’s Office for the 2005 Philadelphia Archdiocese Grand Jury Report; and I represent the one woman who is in statute with respect to the Solebury School and the woman raped by the Polish priest discussed in this column.

  • lu

    What a bunch of first class religious sicko politicians Pennsylvania has that a straight two-year window for ALL child sex abuse victims doesn’t stand a chance at this time.

    Rep. Rozzi is only able to offer a compromise amendment that would give victims, until age 50 to file suit, as the votes apparently are not there for those that are older.

  • mference

    To cover-up crimes of clergy sex abuse in the Pittsburgh Diocese all you have to do is call 911.
    Read for yourself and judge for yourself:
    An Open Letter to William and Kimberly Gaines proud parents of Billy Gaines, a former University of Pittsburgh student and football player who fell to his death due to the corruption of the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese.

    Sadly, Mr. & Mrs. Gaines I have to be the one to tell you that Billy’s untimely death could have and should have been prevented. For over 25 years I’ve been trying to expose the dysfunctional and deviant behavior of a former Catholic priest from the Pittsburgh Diocese. His name is Father John Wellinger.

    Billy was not the only University of Pittsburgh student to be victimized by a Catholic priest, nor the only young man to lose his life because of a Catholic priest from the Pittsburgh Diocese. I can assure you that I have tried everything imaginable to expose the criminal behavior of Catholic priests in the Pittsburgh Diocese, especially Father John Wellinger.
    Had I successfully exposed Wellinger, there’sno doubt in my mind, your son, Billy would still be alive. What’s worse, there were so many others who could easily have exposed Wellinger but deliberately covered-up his crimes; again had any one of these dozens and dozens of people done the right thing, your son Billy would be alive today.

    I take no pleasure in writing this letter even though I know it may finally force people to confront the truth. And, I know it won’t bring Billy back, but it might save others. I have a feeling Billy would want to help others.

    Here’s what I know for sure and why Billy could still be alive today if only those people in charge would have done the right thing.

    From 1981 to 1985 Father John Wellinger abused a young boy at St. James Parish in Wilkinsburg where Wellinger served as the assistant pastor. The young boy’s name was Jeffrey Wennersten who passed away at the age of 42, leaving a young son. Just weeks before Jeffrey died he shared details of the abuse he suffered at the hands of Pittsburgh Catholic priest Father John Wellinger.

    Sometime in early 1987, possibly February or March, Father John Wellinger and a University of Pittsburgh student, Greg Witkowski were sharing beers in an Oakland apartment that Greg rented with his brother, who was also a Pitt student. Greg admitted to me that Wellinger often provided alcohol for Greg and his brother. On this occasion Wellinger also drugged Greg with a substance that knocked him out for hours. When Greg regained consciousness he intuitively called 911. Scared, Greg said he raced down the flights of stairs
    to meet the EMS crew and ambulance that transported the still dazed student to Presbyterian University Hospital, now known as University of Pittsburgh Medical
    Center (UPMC).

    For whatever reason, the emergency room doctors refused to treat Greg even though he ingested an unfamiliar substance, administered by a lay person, with malicious intentions and alcohol was part of the mix.

    This was years before the Boston scandal exploded, so the Catholic Church still maintained its grip on plenty of institutions, it appears that the University of Pittsburgh was one of them and its affiliate, Presbyterian University Hospital.

    Father Wellinger trailed the ambulance to the emergency room and took Witkowski by surprise. Staying calm, Witkowski asked Wellinger to fetch his nurse. When the nurse arrived, Witkowski explained that Wellinger was the person who had drugged him. No police were called, not even hospital security.

    Witkowski’s parents Robert and Ann were summoned to the hospital and asked to take their son home. I do not know who or if anyone ever paid the hospital bill. According to former Clairton Public Safety Director William Scully, he explained to me in 1990 that a hospital worker advised Robert and Ann Witkowski not to press charges and further cautioned the parentsthat the Catholic Church was too powerful to challenge.
    Several days later Robert Witkowski would confront Father John Wellinger at Holy Spirit Church in West Mifflin, PA. Father Wellinger was the parish priest and the Witkowski family were members. At the time Robert Witkowski came banging on the front door of the rectory, a parish council meeting was going on with several eyewitnesses to the event. I interviewed one of the eyewitnesses who was also Father Wellinger’s secretary. Her name is Marta Placek.

    According to Placek the council members were concerned that Robert Witkowski was drunk and may have had a gun, so West Mifflin Police were called. No charges or arrests were made. My guess is if any questions were asked by West Mifflin police, they quickly forgot the answers.

    Over the years I spoke with Robert Witkowski on several occasions. He never volunteered very much information. He did admit that he received a letter from the legal department of the Pittsburgh Diocese or one of their law firms commanding Robert Witkowski to stay off the property at Holy Spirit Church and to stay away from Father Wellinger.

    If any of this had been exposed, like it should have been, college students throughout the Pittsburgh area would have been warned about Catholic priests such as Father John Wellinger. Freshman orientation would have been the appropriate time to issue the proper alerts. Sadly, too many people failed to take their jobs seriously. Worse yet, folks in charge succumbed to the wishes of evil men in black robes; most likely because they are scared to death of Catholic Church hierarchy.

    Your son Billy wasn’t the only boy victimized by Father John Wellinger. There were many; too many. Here are some of them, all before your son even thought about playing football at the University of Pittsburgh.

    One boy was Chris Mathews an 11-year-old altar boy who served under Father John Wellinger at Holy Spirit Church in West Mifflin, PA.

    Although, I do not know the details of the sexual abuse, I know Chris Mathews very well and his father, as well. His abuse took place in 1989.

    Also in 1989, a young boy from Holy Spirit Church in West Mifflin took his own life. He killed himself with a shotgun blast. Was this young man another victim of Father John Wellinger? I do not know.
    As a civilian investigator, I have very few resources to conduct an investigation. Without a badge or even a press pass, most people would shy away from talking to me; all
    fearful of the Catholic Church. 1989 was not a good year for former altar boys of John Wellinger. Robert Butler served under Father John Wellimger at St. Clare of
    Assisi Parish in Clairton, PA. Butler also attended the parochial school, it was known as Clairton Central Catholic. Butler and his circle of friends were
    often invited to the rectory for fun and games with Father Wellinger. The game room had a pool table and pinball machines, I was told.

    Butler would kill himself with what I believe was a 32-caliber pistol on his way to Serra Catholic High School in McKeesport, PA. One shot to his right temple, he probably died instantly.
    Before killing himself, Butler tried to murder my son, Adam with a 32-caliber bullet discharged inches away from the back of my son’s skull.

    Miraculously, my son survived and thrived.
    It’s the main reason why after 25 years, I’m still fighting to expose Father John Wellinger and all the harm he did to others. There’s no doubt in my mind that Wellinger
    sexually abused Robert Butler.

    I spoke to many people about Wellinger. I would state with absolute certainty that Wellinger’s sexual activity with young boys, young men and older women was common knowledge in every parish where the preying priest served.

    The women who worked in the cafeteria and volunteered to watch the children on the playground at Clairton Central Catholic knew to keep their children away from Wellinger.
    According to Mrs. Helen Weeks, the cafeteria manager at the time, Wellinger liked to parade around the playground covering the younger children faces with his long black rope and smothering their heads into his genitals; separated only by a thin layer of clothing.

    One of the things I learned through my 25 years investigating the Catholic Church is that Catholic parents don’t give a damn about other children. As long as their children’s heads weren’t being squeezed in Wellinger’s private parts; that’s all that mattered.

    Wellinger was at St. Clare of Assisi in Clairton in 1985 and 86 or so. I was told by a Catholic priest that a man with the last name, Volmer went to talk to Father Charles Bober and complained about Father Wellinger’s predatory behavior and nothing was done.

    Father Bober is a big time operator in the Pittsburgh Diocese raising millions of dollars for the Cardinal Donald Wuerl Catholic High School. He’s got a plum position in a financially well-off parish church in the north hills section of Pittsburgh. Possibly a reward for keeping his nose clean and his mouth shut.

    Again, if this is true, your son Billy should have and could have been alive today.

    Back in 1987 or 1988, Marta Placek, Wellinger’s secretary at Holy Spirit Church in West Mifflin, PA went to the Pittsburgh Diocese to protest Wellinger’s behavior at Holy Spirit Church. Her complaint included Wellinger providing living arrangements for a young man, possibly from St. James Parish in Wilkinsburg, PA, yet another parish that witnessed at least one young man who suffered as a result of Wellinger’s demons.

    Instead of Placek’s concerns being taken seriously, she was labeled a gossip hound by Pittsburgh Diocesan spokesman, Father Ron Lengwin.

    Certainly, by the time Placek lodged her complaints, Wellinger’s dossier was simply too depraved to reveal. One could easily make the argument that Wellinger’s file was so wicked and dreadful, he may have been able to blackmail church hierarchy.

    In any event, if any of Wellinger’s alleged crimes would have been and should have been reported your son, Billy and his friends would have known better than to trust a Catholic priest overly eager to offer alcohol to underage young men.

    After all these years something made me reach out to you, William and Kimberly Gaines. I hope it makes a difference. I hope I did the right thing. I know your son, Billy was a good boy and a very tough football player. I tried and tried to expose the truth. I wish I could have done more. I really believe Billy could be alive today.

    Maybe, just maybe, it was Billy who spurred me on to write this letter. Maybe someday, we’ll find out.

    God Bless you William and Kimberly Gaines and God Bless Billy.

    Warm regards,
    Mike Ference

    • David Mason