Bishops: We're Not Blocking Legislation
The Catholic Church Said Its Passive Approach on Pa. Sex-Abuse Bills Did Not Indicate Opposition
By David O'Reilly
Philadelphia Inquirer [Pennsylvania]
August 14, 2006
Responding to criticism that they are quietly stifling efforts to expand child sex-abuse laws, Pennsylvania's Catholic bishops say their passive approach does not mean they are against the legislation.
The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia issued statements Friday in response to allegations by activists that church leaders are failing to support legislation that they claim to support.
Legislation in Harrisburg would extend the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution of the abuse of minor, expand the definition of who must report abuse, and expose employers and supervisors who knowingly facilitate abuse to criminal prosecution.
Another bill would create a one-year "window" for people to file civil suits against their abusers after the statute of limitations has passed.
All the bills are stalled, critics say, largely because Philadelphia Cardinal Justin Rigali and the Catholic Conference have not endorsed them.
"If Cardinal Rigali were to call a press conference... and say, 'This is what we are for: these criminal reforms,' it would probably be done," said Michael Piecuch, majority chief counsel to the House Judiciary Committee, which is considering some of the bills. "I don't know why it hasn't happened."
Piecuch said the bishops' lack of support "appeared to signal their indifference."
Two former assistant Philadelphia prosecutors who played leading roles in a grand jury investigation of clergy sex abuse and cover-up within the archdiocese have said bishops have failed to back legislation they say they support. Some of the legislation was recommended in the district attorney's devastating report in September.
In an e-mail response to questions from The Inquirer, Amy L. Beisel, director of communications for the Catholic Conference, said Friday that such assertions "mischaracterized" the bishops' stance.
"The conclusion has been drawn that by essentially taking no position, somehow that means PCC and the church in Pennsylvania oppose the measures," she wrote. "That is simply not true - the PCC is not lobbying in opposition to these bills."
The conference's position is that "by not opposing them, the PCC would not stand in the way of a dialogue to explore the possible broader implications of these proposals on other child-care and child-advocacy organizations, such as human service agencies, schools, foster parent programs, recreational activities and others," she wrote.
Beisel declined a request to explain which of the bills might be problematic and why.
In a statement Friday to The Inquirer, the archdiocese said it "encourages efforts to strengthen Pennsylvania's laws that would result in greater protection for children."
"In particular," the statement said, the "archdiocese supports lifting the criminal statute of limitations, increasing penalties for sexual offenses against children, enhancing the Child Protective Services Law's reporting requirements, amending the Child Protective Services Law to require background checks in non-school organizations, and holding unincorporated associations to the same standard as corporations for offenses relating to the abuse of minors."
Matthew Gambino, deputy communications director, said this did not mean the archdiocese endorsed any of the bills now in committee.
Piecuch said he believed some lawmakers were not backing the bills for fear of appearing "anti-Catholic." Others, he said, view child sex abuse as a "Philadelphia problem," or have questioned the bills' impact on other youth-based institutions, or are more focused on local issues in this election year.
The Catholic Conference, which represents the state's 10 dioceses, has campaigned vigorously against the civil-statute window, saying it could have a devastating financial effect on some dioceses and establish a bad legal precedent.
California created a one-year window in 2002, and nearly 1,000 plaintiffs have won an estimated $800 million in settlements of civil suits.
Since then, Catholic conferences have defeated similar legislation in 12 other states.
State Rep. Douglas Reichley (R., Berks), lead sponsor of the "window" bill, said last week that it had no hope of passage, and other advocates have said the bills have been effectively doomed for this legislative term, which will expire Nov. 30.
Beisel said that while the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference supported "the goals of the proposed measures to protect children from childhood sex abuse," in its view the district attorney's proposals for legislation "were aimed at the Church specifically."
David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors' Network of Those Abuse by Priests, a national support and advocacy group, said last week that Catholic bishops' conferences in many states engaged in "stealth lobbying," and had proved "extraordinary subtle and effective in defeating unwanted sex-abuse legislation."
Mariana Sorenson, one of the former prosecutors who wrote to Rigali, said in an interview that when Colorado considered eliminating the limit on how long a sex-abuse victim had to sue, "the state's Catholic Conference appeared receptive."
"They said, 'Why not open it to any organization, including public schools?' " Sorenson said. "But that got the teachers' union and the school boards out en masse, and the legislation was defeated."
Gwyn Green, a first-term Democrat in the Colorado House, said in a phone interview Friday that she was "appalled by the viciousness of the personal attacks the church made" on her for her advocacy of the window legislation.
"They read letters denouncing me from the pulpit," she said. "And what they said was totally untrue."
Green, a Catholic, said she had heard from Republican legislators that the Colorado Catholic Conference planned to campaign hard for her defeat in November.
Cathleen Palm, a Pennsylvania child advocate, said last week that supporters of the legislation may have made a tactical error by focusing so much energy on the civil "window" legislation, distracting lawmakers from the more achievable criminal bills.
She also said the Catholic Conference appeared to be sincere in its efforts to "get educated" about the broader implications of the criminal legislation, "but they are not a fast-moving bunch of folks."
The news media have also linked sex abuse with the Catholic Church and have created an anxious atmosphere for some lawmakers "who say they won't touch sex-abuse legislation with a 10-foot pole," for fear of antagonizing their Catholic constituents, Palm said.
"But they end up losing sight of the kid raped by a janitor in school, or a tennis coach."
Read the letter to Cardinal Justin Rigali from two former prosecutors who helped conduct the grand jury investigation into clergy sexual abuse, as well as more coverage of the grand jury case, at http://go.philly.com/priests
Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or email@example.com.
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