The Catholic Church and Boy Scouts are Lobbying Against Child Abuse Statutes. This Is Their Playbook

Pennsylvania state Rep. Tom Murt slid into a pew at his childhood church, seeking a break from politics and the stress of work. Instead, Murt got an earful.

In his sermon, the priest talked about a bill pending in the state legislature that would give survivors of child sexual abuse more time to sue their abusers — and the institutions that hid abuse. 

The Catholic Church was being mistreated, the priest said. Legislators were being particularly harsh toward the church while leaving public school teachers who commit crimes off the hook. 

Then the priest singled out Murt. 

Tom Murt, the priest said, wasn’t defending the church in its time of need. In fact, the Republican and lifelong Catholic was supporting the legislation.

Similar scenes played out across Pennsylvania that week in 2016. One Catholic lawmaker learned she was disinvited from an event because she had voted for the bill. Another felt targeted when his parish pointed out his support for the legislation in a church bulletin.

Such efforts may have appeared hyperlocal and deeply personal, but they weren’t. They were part of a coordinated effort by the Catholic Church to kill the Pennsylvania legislation. That effort extended from the halls of the statehouse — where church-sponsored lobbyists worked behind the scenes and testified publicly — to the very pews where some legislators bowed their heads in prayer. 

In an era when many advocates use social media and online petitions to garner widespread support, the Catholic Church instead focuses on the audience it already has. In Philadelphia, the archdiocese coordinated the distribution of letters to all 219 parishes that warned of “serious dangers” posed by the bill and urged people to pick up additional information at the exits after Mass — and contact their lawmakers.

Since 2009 alone, state lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have tried at least 200 times to extend the civil statute of limitations for child sexual abuse cases, according to a USA TODAY analysis of legislation filed in all 50 states, part of a two-year look at model legislation in partnership with the Arizona Republic and the Center for Public Integrity

The bills have borrowed from and built on each other, sharing common phrases and ideas.

Many special interests, including the insurance industry, oppose efforts to give survivors more time to sue. But two organizations are uniquely positioned to wield influence because of their deep ties to local communities: the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America.

Where legislation has been introduced, equally coordinated opposition has followed fro...

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