Just when everyone wants to believe that the Catholic bishops have turned the corner on child sex abuse, they pull another stunt to set back the progress for all child sex abuse victims. This time their chosen state was Maryland. They will continue to endanger children. It’s time for lawmakers to reject the bishops’ advice on any issue involving child sex abuse.
The bishops have been lobbying against child sex abuse victims on two fronts for years: they have opposed statute of limitations reforms and defended clergy exemptions to mandated reporting (resulting in a confessional privilege that allows a priest who knows of a child predator to do nothing about it). They have heavily pressured Republican lawmakers to keep SOL reform bills bottled up in committee so that no full chamber vote could be taken, effectively stealing the outraged voices of the citizens who elected the legislators. They just can’t get their heads around the fact that so long as they fight child sex abuse victims, the world will not trust them.
2006 was a banner year. In Ohio, “window” legislation, which would have revived expired civil SOLs for child sex abuse victims was on a fast track. There was an Ohio-based documentary on the scandal, the senate passed the bill unanimously, and then the bishops exercised their muscle. The bill was scheduled for a vote the next morning, and at midnight they met with the Republican members and agreed to replace the window with a pathetic “civil registry.” In the cover of the night they flexed their muscle and justice was denied, yet again. To add insult to injury, they had the nerve to say that the victims said, “it wasn’t about the money” and so they didn’t want justice either. The survivors were devastated; the bishops’ cynicism was disgusting.
Then there was Colorado, where Archbishop Charles Chaput was in charge and again a window was making significant progress. Chaput hired a fancy public relations firm to kill it. They came up with the ingenious scheme of putting flyers in the Sunday pews that “informed” Catholics that the bill was “anti-Catholic.” Why? Because it only applied to private institutions (not just the Church) but didn’t apply to public institutions. This ruse worked and the bill died. That tactic closed many windows over the ensuing years until lawmakers included public entities in their window legislation and this “fairness” argument melted away, including in New York where Cardinal Timothy Dolan this year had to support the window once crystal clear language was included treating public and private entities identically.
Most recently, we have Maryland, where lawmakers snuck into a good 2017 bill a provision for a “statute of repose.” A statute of repose is an increasingly disfavored approach to statutes of limitations, because it ties the hands of future legislatures by setting an upper limit on any claims. They saw the window train-a-coming, and we are told, without even the sponsors’ knowledge, in an amendment they silently inserted the statute of repose into the bill, without any open discussion in committee, sub-committee or on the floor. So, when Maryland started to consider a window this year, lo and behold, there is an upper limit on dates of claims against all institutions! Voila! They had gutted the window even before it was passed. “Not so fast” was the message in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee hearing this week as the members considered House Bill 687, legislation that would reform the statute of limitations for filing civil lawsuits, including a two-year window. Much of the debate was focused on the repose ruse, where witnesses testified about the inapplicability of the statute of repose in child sexual abuse cases and the inherent injustice of this clandestine move.
You have to hand it to the bishops for inventiveness and perseverance. But you also have to know that these ongoing dirty tricks are part of what appears to be a permanent viewpoint that justifies suppressing a full accounting. What is most disturbing here is that their hijinks block justice for all victims, whether from family, school, religious organization, or sports team, not just the ones they created. Their tactics re-victimize all victims and darken the room of truth.
Lawmakers have the power to stop these dirty tricks and to bring the cover-up into full sunlight so that we can learn where we went wrong on child protection, establish justice, and prevent it in future. For a very long time, prosecutors and lawmakers cowered in fear of the Catholic bishops as survivors poured out their hearts to the public. That has changed—35 states are considering SOL reform this year; there are at least 14 active state attorney general investigations into abuse in the Church, following Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s grand jury report on six dioceses in Pennsylvania; and, refreshingly, the attorney general of West Virginia has filed the first lawsuit against an entire diocese and its bishop for endangering children. His argument: they advertised a “safe environment” but employed child predators; that’s consumer fraud. That’s a fact.
Catholic bishops have the constitutional right to lobby for whatever they want. But lawmakers have no obligation to do the bishops’ bidding. When it comes to child sex abuse, deference to the bishops in this era is a straightforward choice for continued secrecy, suffering, and pedophile empowerment.