After the clergy abuse scandal in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese left Pennsylvanians reeling, the Pennsylvania legislature is currently considering a bill that would extend the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse. House Bill 1947 would allow childhood sexual abuse victims 32 years after attaining the age of 18 to pursue damages against their abusers. Unfortunately, the bill has a powerful and relentless opponent.
The Catholic Church, with its long history of clergy sexual abuse of children, has opposed statute of limitations reform in California, New York, and other states. Now, the Catholic Church is fighting Pennsylvania's HB 1947.
Catholic Philly reports that Archbishop Charles Chaput sent a letter opposing HB 1947 to all 219 parishes under the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The letter was to be read or made available at Mass during the weekend of June 4-5.
"A bill is currently pending in our state senate, HB 1947, that poses serious dangers for all of our local parishes and for the ministries, charities and schools of our archdiocesan Church. With this letter, I urge you to write or telephone your local state senator and members of the state Senate Judiciary Committee to vote against HB 1947, and especially to oppose any retroactivity provision in the civil statute of limitation covering sexual abuse ... HB 1947 and bills like it are destructive legislation being advanced as a good solution. The problem with HB 1947 is its prejudicial content. It covers both public and religious institutions — but in drastically different and unjust ways. The bill fails to support all survivors of abuse equally, and it’s a clear attack on the Church, her parishes and her people."Chaput's letter claims that the bill would treat private institutions unfairly over "crimes committed by bad individuals in the past". I did not see anything in the bill's text to that effect.
"HB 1947 is retroactive for private and religious entities, but not retroactive for public institutions. It places very low caps on damages for sexual abuse in public schools in the future. And it makes it hard for abuse victims to sue public institutions going forward. Meanwhile, private and religious entities face unlimited liability for exactly the same evil actions, and not just going forward, but also in the past.This is not the first time Chaput has attacked statute of limitations reform. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Chaput fought against a similar bill in Colorado during his time as Archbishop of Denver.
This is not justice. In fact, HB 1947 actually excludes most victims. And it also targets innocent Catholic parishes and families, like your own, who will bear the financial burden of crimes committed by bad individuals in the past, along with the heavy penalties that always result from these bad bills."
Parents of children who attend Philadelphia Catholic schools also received an e-mail from the Archdiocese urging them to fight HB 1947, according to Pennlive. Some Catholics were disgusted by Chaput's letter and the e-mail, with good reason.
State lawmakers who support the bill have also been named in church bulletins and single out by church advocates, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer. According to the Guardian, Archbishop Chaput "inadvertently" sent an e-mail to Santora, accusing the lawmaker of "betraying" the Catholic church and warning that he would suffer "consequences" for supporting HB 1947. Rep. Mike Vereb called Chaput's tactics a "mob boss approach", branding his efforts as "dangerous for the status of the church in terms of it being a non-profit."
The state's other bishops have also come out against HB 1947. Following a Pennsylvania Senate hearing on HB 1947 last week, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference released a statement on the bill. The PCC insisted that it was not opposed to statute of limitations reform, only to retroactive civil lawsuits.
"The PCC is not opposed to eliminating the statute of limitations for criminal prosecutions. We can all agree that anyone who sexually abuses a child should be punished by the law.Whatever.
However, the PCC is opposed to a provision in the bill that would allow retroactive civil lawsuits against private and religious entities. The lawsuits, many of which would be impossible to defend, could lead to the closure of parishes, schools and ministries that serve today’s Catholics, who are in no way responsible for abuse that occurred decades ago."
Catholic leaders aren't fooling anyone. The Catholic Church's resistance to HB 1947 has nothing to do with the constitutionality of the bill or fair treatment of institutions. Church leaders are fighting statute of limitations reform because they don't want to deal with victim lawsuits, which have already cost the institution billions. As usual, the church is reluctant to take responsibility for child sexual abuse committed by its clergy, and is fighting tooth and nail against legislation that would empower clergy abuse victims.
Instead of spending millions of dollars lobbying against accountability measures, the Catholic Church needs to ensure justice for victims and allow them to sue for damages. Unfortunately, this will not happen as long as the Catholic Church cares more about self-preservation than morality.
Perhaps Chaput and his ilk should re-read the Gospel of Matthew passage about those who cause children to stumble.
To read additional commentary, visit the following links.
Lancaster Online: Faith leaders want child sexual abuse victims to have day in court
Allentown Morning Call: Statute of Limitations Lobbying Over Top
Philadelphia Inquirer: Justice for victims won't devastate the church
Pennlive: Stanford rapist's dad and the Catholic Church abuse victims all over again