I never planned to use this blog site as a forum for a discussion on social or political issues. However, events in Harrisburg last week and at the church I attend have given me a reason to reconsider that plan.
The issue at hand is PA Houuse Bill 1947 which amends current child sex crime laws in the state. The bill was overwhelmingly passed (180-15) by the House in April and discussions in the Senate were held last week, much to the dismay of the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania.
The Bill and my understanding of it:
House Bill 1947 would allow any survivor of child sexual abuse who has not yet reached age 50 to seek civil justice and file a lawsuit against perpetrators of sexual abuse and other responsible parties which permitted the abuse-i.e., a priest and a diocese or a teacher and a public school district. The current civil statute of limitations gives victims until only age 30 to bring a civil lawsuit.
House Bill 1947 would also eliminate the criminal statute of limitations for sexual abuse crimes going forward, and would eliminate state law immunity for public schools which act in a negligent manner in permitting the sexual abuse of children.
To sum it up: Both Public and Private sectors would be liable both civilly and criminally for all sexual abuse crimes until the victim reaches the age of 50 once the bill is signed into law. But, only private sector institutions, such as the Catholic Church could be held retroactively, possibly allowing many out-of-date suits to now be filed and opening the Church up to additional financial liability. In addition, the threshold for suing public institutions are lower than those in the private sector due to the law of sovereign immunity.
Recently many churches in our Archdiocese read a letter from Archbishop Charles Chaput voicing the church’s objections to the bill from a political and financial viewpoint.
Before I start to comment on this, I’ll give you my personal disclaimer: I am not Catholic. My wife is however, and we’ve raised our kids as Catholic. I attend church almost every Sunday, however I chose not to convert to Catholocism for personal reasons.
I will include some excerpts from the letter if you haven’t seen it along with my thoughts on its content and what I feel is its meaning. I found the content of the letter to be an insult to my intelligence and obviously, extremely self-serving:
“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.”
- Is Archbishop Chaput telling us that due to the possibility of increased financial liability from victims of clergy abuse that church programs may be cut and churches or schools closed? And why if money is donated through the church to fund a specific charity, would that money go anywhere other than to that charity?
“…and especially to oppose any retroactivity provision in the civil statute of limitation covering sexual abuse.”
- Eliminating the retroactivity portion of the bill would eliminate any currently out of date civil liability. The church would clearly benefit financially from maintaining the current statute of limitations. The Archbishop doesn’t even mention the criminal portion of the bill which tells me the objections are clearly driven by money.
“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.”
- The church has absolutely worked harder to make children safer. Parishioners who take part in ministries such as the CCD Program and other ministries are now screened more responsibly and must be certified that they have not been charged or convicted of this heinous crime. As for Priests or Deacons, I don’t know what the process is, I only hope it is enough to weed out any child predators.
“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.”
- Simple question. Would the church be satisfied if the bill inPublic and government institutions are covered by the laws of Sovereign Immunity. It’s not a new concept and the church knows that. They choose to ignore it however in any discussions of the bill. Today, the general rule is that public institutions such as our state and federal government have immunity from actions that arise while carrying out their official government duties. Otherwise, most claims aren’t precluded by sovereign immunity. If I understand this, would child molestation be included in carrying out official government duties? Would the Vatican enjoy the laws of Foreign Sovereign Immunity? It does, and don’t think they won’t use it. HB1947 is not an attack on Catholic parishioners. Predator priests and the criminal actions of hiding them by church hierarchy are however.
“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.”
- Is that because the courts have already ruled on the constitutionality of recent changes in other states? They did and it is. And again, the Archbishop uses the threat of school and parish closures as a result of this bill passing and not the abusive acts or mismanagement of the church. He doesn’t get it.
“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.”
- Again, only mention of the civil portion, or the financial liability of the bill, not the criminal portion. As I said earlier, I think this is just totally and wholly a money issue. In the past insurance companies may have paid for part of any past settlements, but there is a growing sentiment that these actions are deliberate and heinous and should not be covered under a church insurance policy. For once, I agree with the insurance industry.
This bill is a Pennsylvania House Bill, however similar bills have already been passed in other states including California, Minnesota, and Delaware.
In an article written by The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, a Catholic advocacy group, and posted on their website:
“In Delaware, where a retroactive law was adopted, more than half of the individual parishes in the state were sued. One parish in Delaware was hit with a verdict of over $3 million. Very few could afford to go to court; none were able to defend themselves on their own. Financially, they had no choice but to join a group settlement without establishing the facts of individual cases. The Diocese of Wilmington had to close two struggling inner-city Catholic schools because diocesan funds were drained paying out settlements. The diocese had to lay off 10 percent of its workforce, and shut down or severely cut back on its Catholic Charities programs that help all people regardless of creed.”
Two immediate questions come to mind. Were the displaced students transported to a different parish school (on public school buses, which is what happened at our parish), and again, why would the Catholic Charities program be affected. Up to 65% of the money received by them comes from the federal government. Is PCC saying the money was used for paying lawsuits incurred by the church because of its predator priests? If so, the government needs to investigate its relationship with the church. In my opinion, that action borders on the criminal.
The sexual abuse of children in this country continues to be a hot button topic, unlikely to go away anytime soon. And it shouldn’t. The abusive actions and cover-ups at both Penn State University and the Catholic Church should not be forgotten. No matter what your opinion of HB1947, take the time to understand the issues involved and the ramifications of any law changes that might take place in your state.
The opinions I have expressed are mine alone based on how I understand HB1947 and interpret the letter from Archbishop Chaput. Please feel free to comment, agree or disagree, on the contents of the bill and/or the letter.