Catholic Leaders Fight Legislation on Suits
States Consider Easing Statutes of Limitations
By T.R. Reid, Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 1, 2006
DENVER -- When Colorado lawmakers proposed making it easier for
victims of sexual abuse by priests to sue the Roman Catholic Church
here, Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput fought back hard.
He charged that the effort to relax statutes of limitations reflected
"a peculiar kind of anti-Catholicism" and said the goal
of some lawmakers is the "dismantling and pillaging of the
Church representatives have testified to legislative panels here
that children in public schools are just as open to sexual abuse
as in a church setting and have even given state lawmakers the names
of public school teachers who allegedly abused children. Chaput
said in an interview with a church newspaper that diocesan officials
went to a Denver newspaper with concerns about abuse by public school
teachers and others in an effort to get a story published.
Chaput's aggressive push against the proposed legislation here
comes at a time when a number of states, including Maryland, are
considering easing statutes of limitations for lawsuits by alleged
victims of abuse. Four years after clerical sexual abuse first publicized
in Boston turned into a nationwide scandal for the church, some
bishops are concerned that the proposals could cost dioceses around
the country millions of dollars. Three dioceses -- Tucson; Spokane,
Wash.; and Portland, Ore. -- have declared bankruptcy, and others
have had to sell church property to pay claims.
Proposals to ease the statutes of limitations in Maryland have
been vigorously opposed by Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington
and Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore. The church hired one
of Annapolis's most prominent lobbyists to defeat the legislation,
and the cardinals made personal calls to some state political leaders.
Last week, the House of Delegates voted to approve a watered-down
version, which would allow victims 25 and younger when the law takes
effect to file lawsuits until they reach age 42.
The degrees of opposition have varied throughout the nation. Auxiliary
Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit broke with many of his fellow
church leaders in January and said statutes of limitations should
be eased to allow victims time to come forward. Acknowledging that
he had been abused by a priest as a teenager, Gumbleton said victims
are often embarrassed and intimidated about coming forward.
Church leaders have also been more acquiescent in Massachusetts
and in California, where lawmakers enacted a one-year window in
2003 in which suits could be filed without worries about statutes
"You see varying positions on this because each archbishop
sets his own policy," said R. Scott Appleby, a church historian
at the University of Notre Dame. "Some bishops have decided
that the most responsible role is to act as CEO, to protect the
church's assets against another round of lawsuits. So you do what
a CEO would do: hire lawyers and political experts and go all out
to defeat the legislation.
"But there are also bishops who say their proper role is to
act as a pastor. They worry primarily about helping the victims,
even if the cost in lawsuits and settlements turns out to be huge."
Statutes of limitations generally prohibit civil or criminal trials
for acts that happened so long ago that evidence and witnesses'
memories cannot be considered reliable.
Beyond Colorado and Maryland, legislation to extend the time limits
for sex abuse cases is pending in New York, Delaware, Pennsylvania,
Ohio and Hawaii, according to the Survivors' Network of Those Abused
by Priests, an advocacy group for victims of sexual abuse in the
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has not taken a uniform
national position on statutes of limitations. But it warns that
a spate of new civil suits could undermine church finances and crimp
Catholic charitable work. The church says more than 800 new cases
were filed after California lifted its statute of limitations for
David Clohessy of the Survivors' Network says the most vigorous
effort to block proposed get-tough measures has come here in Colorado.
"Bishop Chaput attacks relentlessly," he said. "We're
all watching now to see if other bishops take up these tactics."
Chaput declined through a spokesman to comment for this article.
In an interview with a national church newspaper, Our Sunday Visitor,
Chaput said his lobbying strategy should be taken up by other dioceses.
He noted that most other bishops have refrained from making comparisons
to abuse in public schools. "Nobody in the church has wanted
to highlight it, out of a misguided sense of propriety," he
told the newspaper. "This is a mistake."
In letters read to all parishes in his diocese this winter, Chaput
argued that it is unfair to change the statute of limitations for
private entities and churches but not the public schools. But his
focus on abuse cases in public schools has sparked a backlash from
"They've been molesting children, and now they say, everybody
does it? It's morally repugnant," said Gwyn Green, a Democratic
state representative and Roman Catholic who has sponsored one of
the pending bills. "When I was in Catholic school if I did
something wrong and then said, 'Well, Johnny did it, too,' I would
be very firmly informed that pointing fingers at others is not an
The church's lobbying effort has turned the child-abuse debate
into a partisan matter in Colorado, with Democrats generally supporting
the new legislation and Republicans largely opposed.
"I don't think there are many, or even any, Republican votes
for these bills," said GOP state Sen. Greg Brophy. "Nobody
wants to bankrupt the Catholic Church, and that's what this would
Green has amended her bill to allow more civil suits against public
entities. The church is still fighting the measure, according to
Christopher Rose of the Colorado Catholic Conference.
© 2006 The Washington Post Company