Down at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia headquarters, they are putting the wagons in a circle.
And, once again, the issue is the child sex abuse scandal that has dogged the church for a decade.
Specifically, the church is taking aim at legislation being considered in Harrisburg that would change the statute of limitations to allow victims of abuse more time to file civil actions.
That, as you might expect, is raising more than a few eyebrows at the archdiocese. In other words, it could cost them millions in civil lawsuits based on old abuse cases.
House Bill 1947 passed the House by a 180-15 vote. It is now being taken up by the Senate. No vote has yet been scheduled, but a hearing on the bill is expected to be held next week.
HB 1947 would reach into the past and open a window to the victims of child sexual abuse. Right now a person only has until age 30 to file such measures. HB 1947 would extend that until age 50. It would also lift the statute of limitations for criminal charges to be filed in such cases.
The measure, which passed in the House in historic fashion after years of resistance to such calls, is opposed by the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the Pennsylvania Insurance Federation. And, as you might expect, leading the battle cry is the archdiocese itself.
Last weekend Archbishop Charles J. Chaput sent a letter to all parishes in the archdiocese, urging the faithful to contact their legislators to vote against the measure.
Chaput branded the legislation as “a clear attack on the church, her parishes and her people.”
The fear is that huge awards stemming from a new wave of civil actions would damage the work of the church, including its work for the poor, and possibly even resulting in the closure of more schools and parishes.
They point to a similar law that was passed in Delaware that resulted in job cuts.
In his letter, Chaput makes the point that he believes the church is being held to a different standard than public institutions, such as the public schools, when it comes to the evil of child sexual abuse.
He suggests the burden eventually will be born by Catholic parishes and families.
State Rep. Nick Miccarelli, R-162, is beginning to feel like collateral damage in this war.
Miccarelli, who knows a thing or two about combat, having served a tour of duty with his National Guard unit in Iraq, found himself in the crosshairs – in his own parish.
It was noted in the St. Rose of Lima church bulletin that the Republican had voted in favor of House Bill 1947.
He’s not happy about it, in particular this notion that he somehow has rigged this thing against the church while letting public institutions off the hook. And he’s more than ready to dispute the archdiocese’ characterization of the legislation.
Here’s what the note in the church bulletin said:
“JUST SO YOU ARE AWARE,” read the headline.
“State Representative Miccarelli voted in favor or House Bill 1947, which states that private institutions can be sued as far as for years ago for millions of dollars, while public institutions may not be sued for any crimes committed in the past.”
Miccarelli is planning to offer his full side of the issue in a letter to the editor.</p>
And he says he’s not the only legislator who was targeted.
“Does the hierarchy believe that 180 members of the House are out to get the Catholic church,” Miccarelli wrote. “Maybe they think that our goal is to attack the church and to let government entities get off scot-free? It is incomprehensible that they could believe either of these thoughts to be our true intentions.”
The Republican is particularly incensed that no one at his own parish at St. Lima reached out to him before casually dropping that note in the church bulletin.
He’s planning to pen a letter to the editor to offer his side of the controversy.
“Frankly, I would much rather be chastised from the altar, than to be damned for not allowing justice to be done,” he said.”
What was that someone once said about the sins of the fathers? It seems the Catholic church in Pennsylvania has not yet been able to put the lingering effects of years of abuse by a small number of priests behind it.
First there was the two grand jury reports. Followed by a conviction of a high-ranking church official, one that, by the way, has been overturned and is currently on appeal. Then we had “Spotlight,” which won an Academy Award for its depiction of the Boston Globe investigative team that blew the lid off the sex abuse scandal in the Boston Archdiocese.
Now there is House Bill 1947.
An attack on the Catholic church or an opportunity, finally, to deliver justice to victims of child sexual abuse.
We might be about to find out.
Archbishop Chaput’s letter
Archdiocese of Philadelphia
Office of Archbishop
222 North 17th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103-1299
June 4-5, 2016
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.
All of us are rightly angered by the crime of sexual abuse. Over the past decade the Church has worked very hard to support survivors in their healing, to protect our children and to root this crime out of Church life. But 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.
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 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. This is not just an archdiocesan problem. In other states where similar legislation passed, local parishes have been sued, resulting in parish and school closures and charity work being crippled. The effect of bills like HB 1947 is to erase the sacrifices of generations of faithful Catholics who have done nothing wrong.
The Church in Pennsylvania accepts its responsibility for the survivors of clergy sex abuse. It’s committed to helping them heal for however long that takes. But HB 1947 and bills like it are not an answer. This kind of legislation is unjust and deeply misleading. It benefits too few victims, and it ends up punishing Catholic parishes and families who are innocent of any wrongdoing.
This is a serious and time-sensitive matter. Please take a few minutes to review the important information materials available at the exits after Mass. Senate hearings begin on or around June 13. Please act now to contact your senator, and members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and urge them to oppose HB 1947 and any effort to impose civil statute retroactivity. You can do that quickly and easily by visiting www.pacatholic.org. That’s the website for our state Catholic Conference, and you’ll see a prominent link on the homepage about this vital matter. Thank you and God bless you.
Sincerely yours in Jesus Christ,
Most Reverend Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
Archbishop of Philadelphia