By Paul Vitello (NY Times)
June 5, 2009
Bishop Nicholas A. DiMarzio of Brooklyn repeated a warning this week that he has leveled at lawmakers for months: If the statute of limitations on child sex-abuse lawsuits is temporarily lifted, as pending state legislation proposes, a cascade of very bad things will happen.
His Roman Catholic diocese and others will go bankrupt. Bishops like him will be forced to close churches and schools. And wrathful constituents will punish the politicians who, in his view, will have made this all happen.
Religious leaders have been part of civic dialogue at least since Moses. More recently, Pope John Paul II and Cardinal John J. O'Connor of New York have been considered among the master politicians of their time.
But in the battle over the sex-abuse bill, which has been introduced for several years but never had a chance of passage until now, Bishop DiMarzio has mounted such an urgent and aggressive sally into the political realm that some elected officials and community leaders have questioned whether he has overstepped church-state boundaries.
In the darkest view, some say he entered into a pact with a Brooklyn power broker, Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez — ousting a priest as head of a Brooklyn community group that was tangling with Mr. Lopez. In return, according to this narrative, Mr. Lopez wrote a competing bill that would not lift the statute of limitations on abuse lawsuits.
Under current law, plaintiffs have five years after turning 18 to file suits involving claims of sex abuse during their childhood. Both versions of the pending legislation would increase the period to 10 years.
Under the version of the bill the bishop opposes, any plaintiffs, regardless of age, would have a one-year period to sue over child-abuse charges that took place at any point in their lives, no matter how long ago.
"I respect the line between church and state, but I'm afraid Bishop DiMarzio does not," said Representative Nydia M. Velasquez, who says many of her Brooklyn constituents were upset about the forced resignation of the Rev. James O'Shea as executive director of an organization called Churches United. "His actions in this matter have been totally inappropriate."
Both the bishop and Mr. Lopez deny having struck any bargains, or having had anything to do with the priest's removal. Bishop DiMarzio, the religious leader of 1.5 million Catholics in the Diocese of Brooklyn, which includes Queens, has not shied away from the political arena since the Vatican appointed him in 2003.
His leading role in contesting the sex-abuse bill, which is opposed by all the state's Catholic prelates, contrasts with the less-assertive style of Cardinal Edward M. Egan, who retired in April as leader of the neighboring Archdiocese of New York.
Cardinal Egan's successor, Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, a gregarious and reputedly talented political player, has been as opposed to the bill, but less outspoken, since arriving in New York less than two months ago.
Bishop DiMarzio, 64, attributes his passion on the issue to a fervent belief that the diocese, and the social services it provides, would be at risk if people now in middle age were to claim harm by priests who died long ago, for which the church could be liable.
In addition to the financial drain, he said, the adversarial process of litigation would present an "insurmountable barrier to bringing about what is necessary — healing."
But some politicians feel that the bishop's advocacy sometimes verges on bullying.
Assemblywoman Margaret M. Markey, the Queens Democrat who co-wrote the bill and describes herself as a practicing Catholic, said campaign literature labeling her as anti-Catholic poured down upon the doorsteps of her district in her last re-election campaign. "I have no doubt that Bishop DiMarzio was behind it," she said.
Msgr. Kieran Harrington, the bishop's spokesman, said that her charge was "totally unfounded, and she knows it."
The story of Father O'Shea's resignation as head of Churches United last November illustrates the inherently tangled nature of the church's many interests in the daily life of the city.
Father O'Shea, a priest of the Passionist order and an experienced community organizer, co-founded Churches United in 2003 with Bishop DiMarzio's blessing to help encourage neighborhood involvement in the planning of a 31-acre urban renewal project known as the Broadway Triangle.
The group drew its members from parishioners and clergymen at a dozen Catholic churches in the area around the project, where the city proposes creating 1,895 below-market apartment units in a cluster of high-rise buildings in Williamsburg.
Almost from the start, Father O'Shea and other leaders of Churches United butted heads with Assemblyman Lopez, who had been involved in the project since its conception in the 1990s.
As chairman of the Assembly's housing committee, Mr. Lopez had helped get funds for the project. He was also founder of a nonprofit social services organization, the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council Inc., one of two groups which the city has awarded some contracts for preliminary development work.
Father O'Shea and Mr. Lopez clashed over transparency in the planning process, according to former members of Churches United. In a richly diverse borough, on one of the few large tracts of land where affordable housing was promised, those clamoring for a stake included Latinos, blacks, young whites drawn to the area in the last decade, and a large community of Hasidic Jews.
"Father O'Shea wanted inclusiveness and open discussions," said Rob Solano, a former board member. "Vito was doing business in private. He didn't want to hear about it." In an interview, Mr. Lopez said his only interest was "to make the process move expeditiously."
Among the many competing demands in the community, the most sensitive involved housing allocations among ethnic groups. Father O'Shea wanted those questions decided in open talks, said Luis Garden Acosta, another group member.
Last November, Bishop DiMarzio summoned Father O'Shea to diocesan headquarters to voice concerns about his work, said another priest who attended the meeting, the Rev. Anthony Hernandez, a member of Churches United, who would later demand Father O'Shea's resignation. He said the bishop's discontent focused on "Father O'Shea's inability to compromise."
Asked with whom the bishop said Father O'Shea was unable to compromise, Father Hernandez said the bishop was speaking broadly; and that the bishop's fear was that Father O'Shea's approach would be seen as promoting the interests of Catholics over other groups, like the Hasidim.
In late November, Father O'Shea resigned, and Churches United was dissolved.
In December, Mr. Lopez, who had supported Assemblywoman Markey's bill in three previous years, introduced his competing sex-abuse bill.
The sequence of events triggered suspicions. "In Brooklyn, everybody knows what happened," said Diana Reyna, the city councilwoman who represents some neighborhoods in the Triangle. "Father O'Shea was a pain in the neck to Vito Lopez. Vito Lopez charmed the bishop into an understanding that he could be of help with this bill if the bishop just make this priest go away."
Mr. Lopez said the charge amounted to "character assassination of the bishop." He said he changed his mind about the legislation because he studied the issue and decided he had been wrong to support Ms. Markey's bill, he said.
Monsignor Harrington, the bishop's spokesman, called the claim "outrageous."
Father O'Shea, who agreed to make limited comments about the incident as long as they were not construed as critical of Bishop DiMarzio, described his relationship with Mr. Lopez as "contentious."
He said the view that he seemed to favor one group's interests over another's was a topsy-turvy version of reality: "I was trying to bring more people into the process. To be as transparent as possible," he said. "The tension started because Vito Lopez was operating secretively."
Asked why he resigned as executive director of Churches United, Father O'Shea said, "I was asked by the diocese to step down, and I did" — a characterization disputed by the diocese. Monsignor Harrington said Father O'Shea was removed by his fellow priests.