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Our Catholic dioceses have implemented significant changes to aid abuse survivors and affirm that they are not at fault for the crime committed against them. The Church has a sincere commitment to the emotional and spiritual well-being of individuals who have been impacted by the crime of childhood sexual abuse, no matter how long ago the crime occurred. We accept our responsibility for abuse that occurred within our ranks and will support survivors as long as necessary. The dioceses are also committed to the goal of protecting children and ending child sexual abuse by aggressively responding to allegations of sexual abuse, carefully screening clergy, employees, and volunteers, and educating adults and children about the signs of abuse and how to report that abuse to civil authorities.
Despite that, on Tuesday, April 12, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives voted to allow civil lawsuits to be filed retroactively for cases against non-profits in which the survivor is now between 30 and 50 years old. However, this provision applies only to private or non-profit organizations like the Catholic Church, not government institutions like public schools or juvenile facilities. This provision is clearly unfair and is designed to target the Catholic Church.
Here is more information to help you not only understand what it proposed, the kind of impact this legislation will likely have on Catholic parishes and ministries throughout the state, and what the Church has done to help survivors of abuse, no matter when their abuse occurred.
What are statutes of limitations?
A basic principle of American law, statutes of limitations ensure fairness in our legal system by requiring lawsuits to be filed in a timely manner. Without them, non-profits and Churches could face lawsuits alleging abuse from decades ago. It is nearly impossible for an institution that did not itself commit the abuse to defend against a lawsuit from many years past because over time witnesses’ memories become unreliable, evidence is lost or never found, and in many instances perpetrators or witnesses may be deceased.
Why does the Church oppose this legislation?
The Church is not opposed to eliminating the criminal statute of limitations (this legislation would eliminate this statute). We can all agree that anyone who sexually abuses a child should be severely punished by the law. Sexual predators should be locked behind bars and removed from society so they cannot hurt anyone else. Criminal cases require a burden of proof that is beyond a reasonable doubt and fairness is built into the system through checks and balances.
In contrast, anyone can file a civil suit without a burden of proof. An alleged abuser may not even be alive, but a third party, like his or her employer, could be sued even after the perpetrator, possible witnesses, or clear evidence is long gone. Removing this fairness from our judicial system would make it impossible for any organization that cares for children to defend itself in court many years later.
Why should parishioners be concerned about this legislation?
In other states where similar laws were passed, lawsuits were brought against individual parishes as well as the diocese. The money needed to settle the lawsuits would come from the dioceses and parishes in which the alleged abuse occurred. In other states, retroactive changes to the law resulted in dioceses closing schools, parishes, and charities and, in some cases, declaring bankruptcy. In short, this legislation has the potential to severely cripple the ministries of the Catholic community in Pennsylvania.
This legislation would impact Catholic schools. What about public schools?
The retroactive feature of the legislation would apply to churches and other private or non-profit institutions, such as the Boys Scouts. It would not apply to public schools, which are protected from certain lawsuits under a legal doctrine called “sovereign immunity.” Numerically, the vast majority of abuse cases occurred and continue to occur in public schools – this is a matter of public record – but the proposed legislation would most heavily target private and religious organizations. Simply put: The bill as currently written would allow lawsuits to be filed retroactively against private institutions, but only allow lawsuits to be filed in the future against public institutions.
What are some of the implications of the legislation to amend the statutes of limitations?
The most obvious practical result of bills such as this one is to generate lawsuits against the Church and millions of dollars in legal fees for plaintiffs’ attorneys. The proposed retroactive change in the law does nothing to enhance the security of young people today. And since most Catholic schoolchildren attend public schools, Catholic families should note that is does nothing to assist the many persons abused in public schools and institutions in the past.
What can I do?
It is important to remember that the Church remains strongly committed to helping survivors of clergy sexual abuse heal. That will not change. The proposed retroactive legislation is really about punishing the Church and today’s parishioners for sins committed by evil individuals in the past. This is not justice.
The Catholic Advocacy Network is a useful tool to make it easy for you to contact your legislators. Take action on one of our key issues to join. We will email action alerts when legislation starts to move.
Every two-year legislative session, thousands of bills are introduced. Many of these proposals are of import to Catholics, as they impact programs for the needy, access to health care, respect for human life, education and more.
Recently added bills include legislation that would provide workplace support for nursing mothers and a bill that would add health care providers such as hospital personnel and doctors to the list of professionals required to undergo background checks under the Child Protective Services Law.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) joined twenty-five other major pro-life, religious, and health care organizations on April 19 urging the U.S. House of Representatives to pass the Conscience Protection Act of 2016 (H.R. 4828). Signatories include ten medical groups representing tens of thousands of health care professionals who object to abortion and are seeking legal protection to serve their patients in good conscience.
“Federal laws protecting conscientious objection to abortion have been approved for decades by Congresses and Presidents of both parties. Even many ‘pro-choice’ Americans realize that the logic of their position requires them to respect a choice not to be involved in abortion,” they wrote. “Yet it is increasingly clear that the current laws offer far less protection in practice than in theory.”
The Conscience Protection Act (H.R. 4828), introduced on March 22 by Reps. John Fleming, M.D. (R-LA) and Vicky Hartzler (R-MO), addresses several “loopholes” in current federal laws that have allowed violations of conscience rights to continue. The letter cites a recent California mandate for almost all health plans in the state to pay for elective abortions, and the government’s failure to vindicate the rights of New York nurse Cathy DeCarlo after she was pressured to assist at a late-term abortion.
House Resolution 774 states, in part, “Be it further resolved that the House of Representatives affirm the rich spiritual and diverse religious history of our nation from its founding to the current day; and be it further resolved, The House of Representatives reject, in the strongest possible terms, any effort to remove, obscure or purposely omit such history from our nation’s public buildings and educational resources.”
In mid-March, the House Judiciary Committee approved H.R. 4731, legislation that would roll back protections for refugees seeking admission to the United States, as well as for refugees who have already been admitted to the country. As the House Leadership contemplates whether to bring this bill to the House floor for a vote, it is critical that they hear from everyone who supports refugee resettlement. We must persuade them to not bring this dangerous measure to a vote in the full House of Representatives.
Among its many detrimental provisions, H.R. 4731 would drastically reduce and cap refugee admissions and give Congress, rather than the President, the authority to set annual levels of refugee admissions; subject refugees to the possibility of continual surveillance after they have arrived; create new procedures that would significantly and potentially indefinitely delay resettlement for many refugees whose lives are in danger, including but not limited to Central Americans, Syrians and Iraqis; impose new barriers to the integration of persons admitted to the U.S. as refugees into the civic life of the country; and provide for the decentralization of refugee admissions and resettlement policy by subjecting the question of whether refugees, generally, and even specific refugees can be resettled in a state or community to the momentary vicissitudes of public opinion or the whims of a small but vocal mob.
USCCB strongly supports protection and resettlement of refugees, regardless of which of the five grounds established in U.S. and international law compel them to seek refugee status. However, H.R. 4731 seeks to elevate religious persecution above all other grounds and then seeks to favor particular religions over others for priority consideration.
In our commitment to follow Jesus Christ we must do more than just show up for Mass on Sunday morning, we must bear Christian witness in all we do – in our homes, in our work and recreation, in our interaction with the world around us, and in the public square.
The Pennsylvania Primary Elections will be held on Tuesday, April 26. To help educate voters, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference surveys candidates across the state. Additionally, some dioceses survey local candidates. Those results follow:
Survey of Statewide Candidates, including Attorney General, Auditor General, State Treasurer, and U.S. Senator
Not sure where to go to vote? Find your polling place at this website.
This letter to the editor first appeared at www.pennlive.com
The Catholic Church has learned hard lessons regarding child sexual abuse and has taken responsibility for the abuse that has occurred within its ranks.
The dioceses across Pennsylvania have implemented changes that offer assistance to abuse survivors and affirm that they are not at fault for the crime committed against them.
The Church has also taken great strides to protect children and provide financial assistance for survivors and their families, no matter how long ago the crime was committed, and for as long as necessary.
Children and adults are trained to recognize and report signs of abuse to ensure that the children in our care are safe and secure.
Despite that, state lawmakers are considering a proposal that could lead to the closure of parishes, schools, and ministries of today’s Catholics, who are in no way responsible for abuse that occurred decades ago.
This is not speculative. In other states, parishes and ministries were devastated.
In Delaware, where a retroactive law was adopted similar what will be considered by the Pennsylvania legislature this week, more than half of the individual parishes were sued.
One parish 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, Del, paid out $77.4 million in bankruptcy, closed two struggling inner-city Catholic schools, laid off 10 percent of its workforce, and shut down or severely cut back Catholic Charities programs that help all people regardless of creed. Bankruptcy and severe debt was the only option for most dioceses in the states with retroactive windows.
The Catholic Church has a sincere commitment to the emotional and spiritual well-being of individuals who have been impacted by the crime of childhood sexual abuse, no matter how long ago the crime was committed.
But bankrupting the ministries of today’s Catholics, like their parishes, schools, and charities, is not justice.
Amy B. Hill is the spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference. She writes from Harrisburg.
One Pennsylvania nurse told her legislator, “As a NICU [neonatal intensive care unit] nurse I can attest these babies do feel pain. This practice of abortion or any abortion is cruel, for the infant and mother. Please vote to ban this practice. The mothers and infants of Pennsylvania deserve better.”
Dismemberment abortion, which ends the life of the unborn baby by tearing off one limb at a time and increases the risk of injury to the mother, is used in over 1,500 abortions in Pennsylvania each year.
Eighteen other states have banned late term abortions. Even the lawyer for Kermit Gosnell, who ran the abortion clinic in Philadelphia that was called a “house of horrors,” admitted that Pennsylvania’s laws should be changed, “I’ve come out of this case realizing that 24 weeks is a bad determiner. It should be more like 16, 17 weeks. That would be a far better thing…”
House Bill 1948 could be voted on by the House at any time, but representatives need to hear from their constituents to urge them to take a vote. Join thousands of other Pennsylvanians in asking your legislator to take action today (click here).