The Catholic Bishops Lobby Against Legislation to Protect Children

Posted in: Criminal Law

Last week, the California Catholic Conference (the lobbyist for the California bishops) sent a one-page letter opposing AB1628, a bill that contains a short extension of the child-sex-abuse statutes of limitations, and requires more rigorous background checks for employees and volunteers who work closely with children.  This is a letter worth a closer look, because the bishops are opposing legislation to protect children from predators in many states.

In child-sex-abuse cases involving their employees, the bishops routinely argue that the First Amendment’s Religion Clauses protect them from liability for child sex abuse.  Roughly half of the states, at this point, have flatly rejected this argument, with a very persuasive opinion recently issued by the Tennessee Supreme Court in the Redwing decision.  But Wisconsin, Missouri, and Utah have—unconscionably—wrapped religious organizations in a First Amendment mantle in child-sex-abuse cases.

On a parallel track, the bishops are lobbying in many states to block legal reform that would protect children from sex abuse.  The most recent example of that lobbying is the letter that was sent by the California Catholic Conference in opposition to AB1628.

There are three major arenas in which legal reform is needed if we are to better protect our children.  First, we must eliminate the statutes of limitations for these heinous crimes and for the tort actions needed by victims—a type of reform that I discuss in my book Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children.  Second, we must improve the reporting of child sex abuse to the authorities.  Third, we must improve background check requirements for employees who will, or may, have contact with children.

AB1628 addresses all three of these issues, and the California bishops object to two out of three.

The First Reform That AB1628 Would Pass Into Law:  Modestly Extending the Statute of Limitations

First, AB1628 would modestly increase the statute of limitations, raising it from age 26 to age 35. In other words, the bill would add a mere nine years to the limitations period, and would result in a statute that would still, according to the science of child sex abuse, shut out most victims from the justice system because they would not yet be ready to come forward.  For most, it takes decades to tell others and to have the emotional fortitude to handle the legal process.

The California bishops’ objection to the statute-of-limitations extension is that it might be construed by the courts as being retroactive and, therefore, claims that are now barred by the statute of limitations might be revived.  The language of the bill, however, does not explicitly state that the statute-of-limitations reform would revive past claims and, therefore, under most due process analysis, it could not.  Thus, the bishops are simply objecting to a modest, forward-looking extension of the statute of limitations on a heinous and often life-shattering crime that is committed against vulnerable children.  The truth is that the nine-year extension is inadequate.

The Second Reform That AB1628 Would Pass Into Law: Strengthening the Child-Sex-Abuse Reporting Requirements

AB1628 also aims at improving the systems for reporting child sex abuse to the proper authorities.  More specifically, it requires “[a]ny private entity conducting business in this state that has employees, members, agents, licensees, or representatives who are either mandated reporters or whose duties involve close interaction with children on a regular basis” to  “ (1) Designate an employee to receive complaints of suspected child abuse; (2) Implement an internal procedure for employees, members, agents, licensees, or representatives to report any incident of suspected child abuse to a designated employee, and distribute a written copy of the procedure to all employees. The procedure shall identify the employee who the private entity has designated to receive complaints of suspected child abuse, and shall specify that a person who reports a complaint of suspected child abuse shall not be subject to any sanction for making the report. The procedure shall be consistent with the provisions of Section 11166; (3) Ensure that a mandated report has been made in accordance with Section 11166. A single report may be made in accordance with the provisions of subdivision (h) of Section 11166.”

The bishops do not respond to this section of the bill, probably because California recognizes a confessional privilege, which relieves the bishops of having to report child sex abuse if the information is learned during the abuser’s confession.

The Third Reform That AB1628 Would Pass Into Law: Improving Background Check Procedures

Finally, AB1628 both codifies background check procedures, and increases criminal penalties for organizations that fail to do meaningful background checks on those who will have “close interactions with children on a regular basis.”  The bill requires that “[a] private entity conducting business in this state that rents, leases, or uses public property where an employee, member, agent, licensee, or representative of the private entity will access the public property and has duties involving close interaction with children on a regular basis shall conduct an enhanced background check on the employee, member, agent, licensee, or representative that includes, but is not limited to, the following:(A) Three past employment checks; (B) Three reference checks; (C) A criminal background check to ascertain whether the person has been arrested or investigated for a crime involving the physical or sexual abuse of a child; (D) A public records search to ascertain whether the person has been the subject of any civil claim involving the physical or sexual abuse of a child.”

As to penalties, the bill continues, “(d) A violation of the provisions of this section is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months imprisonment in a county jail or by a fine of one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both that imprisonment and fine. If a person intentionally conceals a failure to report an incident pursuant this section, the failure to report is a continuing offense until an agency specified in Section 11165.9 discovers the offense.”

The California Catholic bishops make two points in response to the part of the legislation setting forth the background check requirements.  First, they claim they had expected to be exempt from such a requirement.  Second, they note that it would cost them money to have to do serious reference and employment checks, in addition to the criminal law check they now do—because they have so many programs involving children!

The chutzpah of these arguments is remarkable.  The California dioceses had hundreds of valid sex-abuse claims levied against them during 2003, when California wisely waived the statute of limitations for a year in order to let child sex abuse victims come forward.  The dioceses settled these cases en masse.  There were about 160 in Northern California; over 500 in Los Angeles; 90 in Orange County; and nearly 150 in San Diego.

The number of children in Catholic programs, and the Church’s undeniable record of covering up abuse are, together, the very reasons that the Catholic Church’s background checks need to become more reliable.  Given the known scope of the abuse in the California dioceses, it is nearly unfathomable that, even now, the California bishops are lobbying against modest extensions of the statute of limitations and meaningful background investigations for those working closely with children on a regular basis.

The Catholic Church Should Not Be Granted Special Lenience in Child Sex Abuse Investigations, but Currently, It Is

If any other institution or organization in the country had harbored this much abuse within its system, the Department of Justice would have thrown its resources into an intense investigation, would have forced a consent decree, and would now be monitoring everything that was being done in the institution regarding children.  The institution’s lobbying against child safety, moreover, might not have seemed to be consistent with that consent decree.

At Penn State, only about a dozen child-sex-abuse victims have been identified so far, and yet the federal government is already investigating the Penn State system.  The cover-up there operated virtually identically to the cover-up in the Catholic dioceses and orders, as I discussed in this prior column.   Yet, Congress, the President, and the executive branch have been mute on the biggest child-sex-abuse conspiracy in United States history.  It is up to the states and cities like Philadelphia, where the trial of Monsignor Lynn is now ongoing, to pursue real justice for children.

In the same week that the California bishops submitted their opposition to AB1628, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops quite publicly issued a “Statement on Religious Liberty,” which is a 13-page document of the bishops’ objections to liberal and moderate public policies, mainly policies involving contraception and the rights of homosexuals.  It is a statement of public policy preferences, not constitutional law, despite the use of the term “religious liberty.”

The bishops are demanding a “right” to impose their religious beliefs against contraception, abortion, and homosexuality on sex-trafficking victims, non-believer employees, and couples applying for foster care or adoption.  Yet there is no such right to impose one’s beliefs on government programs and non-believers.  Quite to the contrary, the Establishment Clause prevents the government from adopting and funding policies according to one religion.

The public deserves to know that while the bishops are stirring the pot quite publicly to obtain more “liberty” than the Constitution provides, they are also working tirelessly to stymie the movement to protect children that was born out of their misdeeds.  Those concerned about the protection of children need to know who their political enemies are.