Monday, August 19, 2013

Catholic Church Fights Abuse Victim Bill in California

In California, a proposed bill that would extend the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse victims has encountered fierce resistance from Catholic Church leaders and its allies. California Senate Bill No. 131 would extend the statute of limitations for recovery of damages suffered due to childhood sexual abuse. However, the Los Angeles Times reports that SB 131 failed to secure enough votes to leave the California lower house appropriations committee and go to the Assembly floor. The panel reportedly plans to take up the bill again next week. If passed, SB 131 would be a boon for clergy abuse victims seeking redress from the Catholic Church, allowing them more time to seek justice in the courts.

Joelle Casteix, western regional director of the Survivors' Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), stressed the importance of legal recourse for victims of childhood sexual abuse. "The best way to expose child predators, help victims heal and keep kids safe right now is by opening up the courtroom doors to victims of child sexual abuse," she told the Orange County Register.

Unfortunately, the Catholic Church has been fighting SB 131 tooth and nail. According to the Los Angeles Times, a group affiliated with the church has recruited five lobbying firms to neutralize SB 131. Large California diocese and allied groups have accused SB 131 of targeting religious and nonprofit organizations while ignoring sexual abuse in public schools.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles has been particularly vocal in its resistance to SB 131. An action alert on the Archdiocese website urges congregants to fight SB 131 as part of "faithful citizenship". Furthermore, it criticizes SB 131 because the bill allegedly "fails to protect all victims of childhood sexual abuse, discriminates against Catholic schools and other private employers, and puts the social services and educational work of the Church at risk." Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez framed the fight against SB 131 as a religious freedom issue, telling parishioners,  "Let's pray for our religious freedom … and let's exercise that freedom by contacting our legislators about SB 131", according to the Los Angeles Times.

The California Catholic Conference (CCC) also blasted SB 131. In a May 7th statement, the CCC complained that SB 131 " will do nothing for the overwhelming majority of victims and shockingly little to most abusers." The CCC has issued an action alert on the bill to Catholic churches, urging citizens to pressure their lawmakers into voting no on the bill.

Various Catholic parishes and individual churches in California have joined the attack on SB 131, echoing the rhetoric of the CCC and the Los Angeles Diocese. (See here for an example.) Dutifully, they claim that the bill unfairly targets Catholic institutions and ignores children abused in public schools.

At times, the rhetoric against SB 131 becomes acerbic. The Media Report posted a vicious commentary on SB 131 last month, blaming the bill on "anti-Catholic zealots" and "cash-hungry contingency lawyers" who stand to win "humongous settlements" if it passes. The commentary demonized SNAP as an "anti-Catholic group" with a "notorious Church-suing lawyer" in tow. The commentary painted SB 131 supporters as malicious, claiming that "the fact that not all dioceses have been bankrupted is what seems to bother those who want to see the passage of the unfair SB 131 the most."

However, some observers are unimpressed with such machinations. John Lovell, a lobbyist for the California Police Chiefs Association, dismissed claims that the bill would harm Catholic schools. "I feel the argument that this bill will result in the diminution of Catholic schools to be offensive and disingenuous," he said, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Professor Marci A. Hamilton of Yeshiva University's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law has spoken in favor of statute of limitation reform for abuse victims. In an August 8th commentary at SOL Reform News, Professor Hamilton observes that California's Catholic Church is using the same strategy to obstruct statute of limitation reform used by other dioceses. She argues against the church's claims that SB 131 is anti-Catholic and biased against nonprofits. 
"This is the same playbook that was first conjured up by now-Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput when he was the Archbishop of Denver, Colorado.  The main idea is that, once SOL reform is proposed in the legislature, the bishops then mobilize their parishioners against it, with messages that misrepresent the actual impact of such legislation, and then play a false anti-Catholic card to really get their parishioners out of the pews and onto their computers and phones.  The trouble is that neither claim is true, nor is either truly in the spirit of Catholic teachings."
Unfortunately, she's right. The Catholic Church has a long history of resisting legislation that would expand the statute of limitations for sexual abuse victims. In many states, the church and its lobbyists have pressured legislators to water down bills and encouraged congregants to sway their lawmakers, according to the New York Times and Philadelphia Weekly.

Professor Hamilton chides church leaders for betraying Catholic principles regarding justice and trying to bar sexual abuse victims from the justice system. "What religious values sanction the bishops’ fabrication of arguments against victims’ access to justice?" she asks. 
"For the Catholic Church, the sexual abuse of children, and their continued endangerment, however, are not acts sanctioned by theology.  And, while the bishops have observed in the past a theologically-based “rule against scandal,” which led them to shield abusers to protect the reputation of the Church, they now say that they are engaging in “zero-tolerance” of abuse, and “cooperating” with authorities.  They are also committed, we are told, to transparency.

So, what religious values are served by their opposition to victims of childhood sexual abuse?  I am told that Catholic theology does embrace the pursuit of justice.  While the Church litigators fighting the victims of the Catholic hierarchy and priests in court frequently intone Canon Law to avoid discovery and liability, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), which John Paul II issued in 1992, is also part of their theological system ... Where are these values in the public relations-fueled campaign against victims’ access to justice?  Nowhere.  Instead, the plea to parishioners tells them that SOL reform is about money, or more specifically, about putting services and schools at risk."
Victims of sexual abuse, including clergy abuse, deserve the right to seek redress in a court of law. By obstructing efforts to make legal redress easier for victims, the Catholic Church is behaving dishonorably. Is the church hierarchy more worried about lawsuits and monetary losses than justice? Is it more concerned about deflecting from its systemic clergy abuse problems than making amends to victims? People of conscience need to call out Catholic leaders for their obstructionism and demand fairness for clergy abuse survivors.


  1. Totally disgusting. Once again they are protecting abusers (and their own bank accounts) at the expense of victims.

    "Let's pray for our religious freedom … and let's exercise that freedom by contacting our legislators about SB 131"

    So religious freedom now includes the freedom to molest without consequences? Are these people even listening to themselves?

    1. Infidel -- Clearly, they're not listening to themselves or doing any kind of moral introspection. My blood boils.

  2. Yeah, it's pretty clear that the Catholic Church is not acting in the best interest of the victims of abuse, but instead are acting to protect themselves. It's a rather sickening display. It calls to mind the verses about men not seeking the light, but rather loving darkness, because their acts are evil. You can't get much more evil than denying children justice.

    1. Wise Fool -- Agreed. Rather than confront the evil in their ranks, they fight measures that could actually help victims.

      As I recall, Jesus of Nazareth had harsh words about those who cause children to stumble...

  3. The Catholic church is behaving as badly as HSLDA is when it comes to fighting abuse protections for children, it's sad really.

    1. Sheldon -- It makes me angry enough to learn about the church's failures to confront systemic abuse. When I learn that some church leaders have been actively fighting pro-victim legislation, I'm at a loss for words.


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