PHILADELPHIA — Roman Catholic legislators say they have been publicly shamed during Mass, called out in church bulletins and disinvited to parish events as the Philadelphia archdiocese campaigns against a bill that would give victims of child sexual abuse more time to sue the Church.
Rep. Nick Miccarelli, a Delaware County Republican, said he was shocked to learn that the weekly bulletin at his church mentioned that he had voted for the bill.
“I’ve been to Iraq and back and there’s very little that makes my jaw drop, but seeing that in the parish bulletin, my jaw hit the floor,” said Miccarelli, who served two tours in Iraq in the Army National Guard. “I was in disbelief.”
Under the headline “JUST SO YOU ARE AWARE” the announcement reads, “State Representative Miccarelli voted in favor of House Bill 1947, which states that private institutions can be sued as far as 40 years ago for millions of dollars, while public institutions may not be sued for any crimes.”
Last weekend, a letter by Archbishop Charles Chaput was given to all 219 archdiocese parishes urging parishioners to ask their senators to vote against it.
Explaining why the archdiocese opposes the bill, Chaput wrote that potential lawsuits would unfairly affect schools and parishes that had nothing to do with the long-ago abuse. He also said the financial ramifications could cripple the ministry.
“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,” the archbishop wrote in his June 6 letter.
He charged that the bill poses “serious dangers” to Catholic parishes and ministries.
“In other states where similar legislation passed, local parishes have been sued, resulting in parish and school closures and charity work being crippled,” the archbishop wrote.
The proposed legislation could “erase the sacrifices of generations of faithful Catholics who have done nothing wrong,” he noted.
The House overwhelmingly approved the bill in April, and it is now being considered by the Senate. It would allow people who say they were abused as children to bring civil lawsuits until they turn 50, up from the current age limit of 30. It also would prevent organizations from claiming immunity if they are found to have acted with gross negligence.
Similar legislation is pending in New York and New Jersey, with temporary windows to file the claims. The Pennsylvania proposal has no end date.
Other states have opened similar windows. In May, Minnesota’s three-year window closed for victims of long-ago childhood sex abuse to file lawsuits. In that time, more than 800 people brought abuse claims against churches, the Boy Scouts, schools and a children’s theater company.
Two Roman Catholic dioceses filed bankruptcy, and the heightened scrutiny played a part in the downfall of two bishops.
“All of us are rightly angered by the crime of sexual abuse,” Chaput wrote. “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 bill, he wrote, “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,” the archbishop stated. “In fact, HB 1947 actually excludes most victims.”
Chaput successfully fought similar legislation in Colorado over a decade ago when he was Denver’s archbishop.
David Clohessy, executive director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, sees Chaput’s tactics in Pennsylvania as an “escalation in scale.”
“He’s targeting more lawmakers now, which suggests he’s more afraid,” Clohessy said.
Archdiocese spokesman Ken Gavin said priests simply shared public knowledge.
“The bill is public and the voting records are public,” he said in an emailed statement Wednesday. “There’s nothing wrong with sharing that information.”
Gavin added that the archdiocese has dedicated over $13 million to provide assistance to victims and their families, including counseling, medication and vocational support.
The Philadelphia archdiocese was hit by one of the worst clergy sex-abuse scandals in the country. A grand jury in 2005 accused it of covering up decades of abuse by dozens of priests. Then in 2011, another grand jury said the archdiocese had kept on assignment more than three dozen priests facing serious abuse allegations.
In March, two bishops who led a western Pennsylvania diocese were accused of helping cover up the sexual abuse of hundreds of children by priests and other religious leaders over 40 years.
Rep. Martina White, of Philadelphia, was set to make presentations at a number of churches a few weeks ago when she got a call from one of the parish’s priests. He told the Republican she was no longer invited because of her support of the legislation.
“At first I thought it was just one priest who was passionate about this issue,” White said Thursday. “Then it happened again, and I realized ‘OK, this isn’t just a fluke thing. The Church is basically cutting me off here.'”
She called the actions hurtful, but added her own parish is supporting her.
Rep. Tom Murt, a Montgomery County Republican who goes to Mass every day, was called out by a priest on Sunday for his vote, according to Murt’s spokesman David Foster.
“He didn’t know what to do,” Foster said. “He didn’t know if he should get up and leave.”
White and Miccarelli both say they stand by their vote, because it helps victims.
“The acts they took toward me personally aren’t going to impact the way I vote,” White said.
(Catholic News Agency also contributed to this report.)