Pa.'s Year in Review: Refinery Blast, Clergy Abuse Fallout and Political Battleground

From the refinery blast that rocked Philadelphia to a tumultuous year in politics to the ongoing clergy abuse scandal, it was a year of memorable stories in the Keystone State

What to Know

  • A rundown of the top Pennsylvania stories of 2019 begins with the clergy abuse scandal. State lawmakers revamped child sexual abuse laws to make it easier for some victims to sue and for police to file charges.
  • Other top Pennsylvania stories of the year include the state's role in the upcoming presidential election.
  • A blast at a Philadelphia refinery rocked the city and led to investigations.

One of the top stories of 2018 — the Pennsylvania grand jury report on clergy sex abuse and the Roman Catholic Church's efforts to cover it up — continued to reverberate strongly in 2019.

After years of delay and debate, Pennsylvania revamped its child sexual abuse laws to make it easier for some victims to sue and for police to file charges. The legislation, signed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf last month, was approved more than a year after the grand jury found that senior church leaders concealed abuse by hundreds of Catholic priests since the 1940s.

Catholic dioceses from Erie to Philadelphia, meanwhile, launched compensation funds and paid tens of millions of dollars to hundreds of abuse victims.

The ongoing clergy abuse scandal was among the top Pennsylvania stories of 2019. The state's key role in the upcoming presidential election, a decision to seek the death penalty in the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, and things that went boom (and bust) were some others.

Battleground Pennsylvania

The 2020 presidential election campaign got underway as former Vice President — and Scranton native — Joe Biden launched his candidacy in Philadelphia. President Donald Trump, hoping for a repeat of his 2016 victory in battleground Pennsylvania, made four trips to the state this year.

Former vice president Joe Biden kicked off his presidential campaign in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We take a look at Biden’s message and his focus on rebuilding the middle class.

The November off-year election saw Democrats sweep Philadelphia's populous suburbs, traditionally a bellwether for statewide candidates. Voters approved a referendum to enshrine rights for crime victims in the state constitution, but a legal challenge threatened to derail the effort.

The Democratic party made history on Tuesday night. They outnumbered the Republicans and the margins nearly doubled since the 2016 election. This could give us some clues about our 2020 election.

Most counties debuted new voting machines mandated by the Wolf administration in an effort to improve election security.

Pursuing Death

Federal prosecutors announced in August they would seek the death penalty for a man charged with killing 11 people inside a Pittsburgh synagogue.

Robert Bowers had offered to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence.

The former truck driver is charged with hate crimes and other offenses in the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history. Authorities said Bowers expressed hatred of Jews during and after the October 2018 rampage at Tree of Life synagogue.

No trial date has been set.

The Pittsburgh City Council tried imposing new gun restrictions in the wake of the massacre, but a judge struck the legislation down in October, noting that Pennsylvania state law forbids municipalities from regulating firearms. City officials vowed to appeal.

Negative Energy

Whether old or new, the state's energy infrastructure was in the news for all the wrong reasons.

Cameras inside the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery caught on video the massive blasts early June 21 from just yards away.

On June 21, a blaze and a series of explosions shook homes and caused extensive damage at Philadelphia Energy Solutions' oil refinery, the largest on the East Coast. The company shuttered the 150-year-old site and laid off workers. Federal investigators blamed an aging elbow pipe that hadn't been inspected in decades.

Pictures: South Philadelphia Refinery Explosion and Fire

In November, The Associated Press reported that the FBI had launched a corruption investigation into how the Wolf administration issued permits for construction on the problem-plagued Mariner East pipeline.

Three Mile Island, meanwhile, passed into history. Chicago-based Exelon Corp. said the plant outside Harrisburg — site of the nation's worst commercial nuclear power accident, in 1979 — was losing money.

Crime & Courts

Jerry Sandusky's bid for a reduced prison term was thwarted after a judge gave him the same sentence, 30 to 60 years, that was imposed in the wake of his 2012 conviction for sexually abusing children. An appeals court had ordered a new hearing for the former Penn State assistant football coach.

Another figure in the Sandusky scandal won a reprieve when a federal judge threw out the child endangerment conviction of former Penn State President Graham Spanier just hours before he was to start serving a two-month jail sentence.

In March, a jury cleared  a white police officer of homicide in the fatal shooting of black teenager Antwon Rose II outside Pittsburgh, in a case that sparked weeks of unrest. Rose's family settled its civil rights suit for $2 million.

On the other side of the state, federal law enforcement officials made the bust of a lifetime when they raided a container ship at Philadelphia's port and discovered more than $1 billion worth of cocaine, one of the largest caches ever intercepted on U.S. shores.

Officials seized more than 15,000 kilos of cocaine with a street value of more than $1 billion at the Philadelphia Port, making it the largest seizure ever for our area and one of the biggest in U.S. history. We have the latest details on the investigation.

Philadelphia rapper-turned-criminal justice reformer Meek Mill pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor gun charge, resolving a 2007 criminal case whose twists and turns had kept him on probation or in prison for most of his adult life.

Meek Mill is no longer tied to decade-old criminal charges after a hearing Tuesday. But the Philadelphia rapper said his work reforming the criminal justice system is far from over.

Keystone Korruption

It wouldn't be Pennsylvania without a public official or five free-falling from grace.

The mayor of Scranton, Democrat Bill Courtright, resigned from office and pleaded guilty to shaking down businesses for bribes and campaign contributions.

Republican state Sen. Mike Folmer of Lebanon County was charged with having child pornography on his cellphone. He faces trial next year. State Rep. Brian Ellis, a Republican from Butler County, was accused of sexually assaulting a woman four years ago. Following a grand jury's recommendation, prosecutors opted not to bring a case.

Both legislators resigned.

Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell, a Democrat from Philadelphia, was charged with stealing $500,000 from charity and spending it on fur coats, a Porsche and travel to Mexico and Florida. She disputed many of the allegations while acknowledging "some missteps." She resigned, too.

West Philadelphia lawmaker Movita Johnson-Harrell is charged with theft, tampering with public records and other related offenses. NBC10’s Drew Smith has the details and talks to frustrated voters in Johnson-Harrell’s district.

And in Philadelphia, a city councilman and a powerful union boss were indicted on bribery charges.

Powerful Philadelphia union leader John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty, along with a city councilman and six others were indicted for allegedly using union money for personal use. We have more details on what led to the indictment.

Former Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane, meanwhile, got out of prison after serving eight months for leaking grand jury material and lying about it.


Investing legend John Bogle, the Vanguard Group founder who launched the first index mutual fund, died at 89. Pennsylvania's unemployment rate hit a record low of 3.8% in April before drifting back up to more than 4% later in the year. Five children died in a fire at a home-based day care center in Erie. The 21-story former world headquarters of defunct steelmaker Bethlehem Steel was demolished.

Martin Tower, once the headquarters of former steel giant Bethlehem Steel, imploded Sunday, May 19, 2019 after decades of decay and disuse.
Copyright AP - Associated Press
Contact Us