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Penn. lawmakers trying to boost sex-abuse laws will have to outmaneuver archbishop

Pennsylvania is now a main site of action in the international chess game that pits the Catholic Church against advocates for the victims of sexual abuse.

This fall, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia was just breaking free from fallout of a vast abuse scandal when the high-profile abuse scandal broke at Penn State University, adding new urgency to lawmaker efforts to reform state statutes of limitations in order to give victims more time to file civil claims against abusers. Those efforts will undoubtedly garner great support among citizens but they will also surely meet savvy well-managed resistance from the Church under new Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, who orchestrated successful opposition to similar efforts in Colorado as Archbishop of Denver over the past half decade.

In the mid-2000s, when shamed archdioceses around the country had come to accept so-called window legislation and paid out tens and hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements to adults who with the new laws were able to pursue justice for crimes visited upon them as children, Chaput almost single-handedly changed the course of the Church in America. He went all out to defeat similar bills in 2006 and 2008 in Colorado, setting the bar in 2006 when he directly appealed to the public and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on PR and political lobbying professionals.

People in pin-striped suits hired by the Colorado Catholic Conference leaked stories to sympathetic reporters and pressed hard on Catholic lawmakers to make the case for Chaput at the capitol. The archbishop gave interviews and wrote op-eds. He sent a formal letter opposing the legislation to be read by pastors during services throughout the archdiocese, a rare act, and had 25,000 postcards printed up for parishioners to fill out at mass and mail to lawmakers.

Chaput also launched a campaign targeting the state’s public schools, producing a list of public school teachers who had been charged with sex abuse and arguing that public schools not Catholic schools were the real site of criminal danger.

Chaput proved a master at hardball politics. His campaign was full of stretched facts and false equivalencies. Opponents outraged at his McCarthy style list of public school abusers, for example, pointed out that the public school criminals had been charged and tried but that their Catholic counterparts faced no such accountability. On the contrary, in parishes around the world, they had been shuttled away, accusations and evidence of crimes buried by Church authorities, which was the main reason advocates for victims were making the case for extending statutes of limitations. They also pointed out that public institutions were subject to open records laws that would prevent the kind of transparency dodging Church officials had engaged in for decades.

As Jeremy Roebuck reported this past August for the Pueblo Chieftan in a piece comprehensively revisiting the battle, Church lobbyists eventually “persuaded Colorado lawmakers to alter the bill to subject government groups to the same $700,000 damages limit that private institutions would now face. In so doing, the bill’s backers unwittingly opened the door to its demise…

“Teachers’ unions, lobbyists for local governments, and insurance companies soon joined the fight. And with mounting opposition from the capital’s most powerful interest groups, the bill that had sailed through committee months earlier suddenly was resoundingly voted down.”

The new sex-abuse legislation in Philadelphia is being proposed by Republican Rep Dennis O’Brien and Democratic Rep Louise Bishop, both members of the House Children and Youth Committee. The legislation will extend statutes of limitations and make it illegal for witnesses of abuse not to report what they have seen directly to law enforcement authorities.

In interviews since his transfer this summer, Chaput has said he doesn’t know why the Pope chose him to lead the flock in Philadelphia. Lawmakers there may soon come to think they know the answer based on practical experience.

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