Statute of Limitations Lobbying Over Top

By Bill White (The Morning Call)
June 8, 2016

My column today is about the Catholic Church's intensifying efforts to convince the faithful to pressure Pennsylvania legislators to oppose statute of limitations reform in child sex abuse cases.

    The goal is to derail House Bill 1947, which would eliminate the statute of limitations for criminal cases of child sexual abuse and extend the statute for civil cases until the victim reaches age 50, retroactively, from the present age 30. The bill also includes a tacked-on provision that partially lifts sovereign immunity protection shielding public entities such as public schools, clearly added as a poison pill designed to kill the bill instead of allowing a clean vote on its merits.

    My position on sovereign immunity is that the issue deserves public hearings and possible changes, but not as part of this bill, where it muddies the issue. However, I'd rather see it pass with that provision than not pass at all.

   The bill passed the House a couple of months ago and is awaiting action in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where a hearing on the bill's constitutionality is scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday.

   Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput and others have been encouraging Catholic pastors to read or distribute lobbying materials at their church services and to parochial school parents. Go to the Philadelphia Archdiocese website and you'll immediately be confronted by a pop-up urging, "Click here to send a message to your legislator opposing HB 1947."

   I promised in my column to share a Facebook post by state Rep. Nick Miccarelli, R-Delaware, which gives you a great idea of what's going on. Miccarelli is the same legislator who played such a big part in freeing Pennsylvania's medical marijuana bill from the House committee where it was being buried, so I already held him in high regard. This just adds to my favorable impression.

    I'll follow this with a copy of one of Chaput's letters to parishioners and an advocacy group's fact sheet.

   Here's what Miccarelli wrote. I added paragraphs to make it easier to read:

      I was nothing short of shocked when a dear friend of mine sent me a picture of the St. Rose of Lima church bulletin on Saturday. It read, "State Representative Nick 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 committed in the past."

     This statement printed in the church bulletin is patently untrue. The simplicity of this statement leaves out much, but most glaringly, it leaves out the true goal of the bill.

     I did vote in favor of HB1947 because as I reviewed the legislation, forefront in my mind was justice for the victims, not sympathy for the predators that committed heinous crimes against children or any public or private institution that allowed sexual abuse to continue unaddressed. HB1947 will allow those who have been molested as children to have their day in court.

    There is no one, and I mean no one, with any understanding of the law who would claim, "public institutions may not be sued for any crimes committed in the past." Google "Jerry Sandusky Penn State Lawsuit" if you need to see evidence that public institutions can be sued. What this bill did was to expand the statute of limitations for claims of child molestation. Put simply, it allows those people who are raped as children more time to face those who raped them.

   I was one of 180 Members of the House of Representatives who believe this bill will help victims. We also believe that this bill would let child predators across Pennsylvania know that they will not be free from punishment if they simply run out the clock.

  At first, I was shocked that my own parish would print something so misleading without so much as a phone call to me. I myself sat in the pews of Saint Rose two days before the bulletin was brought to my attention by my friend. Lastly, many of my constituents have my cell phone number, and my office number is a 10-second google search away. I would have gladly made myself available to discuss this legislation with Father Canavan, a man I have immense respect for, or anyone else from Saint Rose or any other organization that had concerns regarding the intent of this legislation.

    It wasn't until today that I realized the lies about this bill are being preached at more places than Saint Rose. When I arrived in Harrisburg, I saw Rep. Tom Murt of Montgomery County. Tom is a fellow Iraq War Veteran and possibly the kindest and most mild-mannered person I've met since being elected. By the way, Tom goes to a Catholic Church every single day. For the first time in almost 8 years, I saw Tom Murt visibly upset. He told me how his parish sold the same falsehoods to their parishioners as did Saint Rose with him sitting right in the pews.

     Not long after, I saw Rep. Martina White of Philadelphia on the House Floor. Martina had planned to attend several church events. After her vote on behalf of victims, the church disinvited her.

    At least a dozen House Members, Republican and Democrat, Catholic and Protestant, related stories of their local Priests spewing these falsehoods from the altar. One of my fellow House Members was told by a clergyman that his support of this legislation was a betrayal of his Catholic faith. Another informed me that he had been personally threatened by a high ranking clergyman in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. It became abundantly clear to me that not all of these Priests on their own could have conjured up the mistruths about our efforts to protect victims of child rape. These lies, distortions, bully tactics and downright threats must have come from a coordinated effort by some higher level of the Church.

    Does the hierarchy believe that 180 members of the House are out to get the Catholic Church?

    Maybe they think that our goal is to attack the Church and to let government entities get off scot-free?

    It is incomprehensible that they could believe either of these thoughts to be our true intentions. It is my belief, and I'd venture to say the belief of most if not all of my colleagues, that any institution, public, or private, which engages in a coordinated cover up of child rape, should be held accountable. Perhaps the language of this legislation is not clear enough, and I will certainly advocate to my colleagues that sit in the State Senate to ensure that the final language makes it very clear that we will not tolerate or give quarter to any organization, public or private that has sided with the predator over the victim.

    A close friend and a constituent of my district had two pre-teen sons who were molested by a local public school teacher, Edgar Fredrichs, right here in Delaware County in the 1970s. In this case, justice was not swift. The parents notified the local school of the allegations, and no action was taken. The school principal and superintendent thought it best if the ordeal was handled quietly and off the books.

    Later Edgar Fredrichs would take a job as the principal of a school in West Virginia, a position he secured in part thanks to a glowing recommendation he received from the school he left after being accused of inappropriate conduct towards children. Again, he took young boys, all elementary school age, camping to violate them and avoid being found out. It wasn't until he killed a child in 1997 that he was finally brought to justice. A civil suit was brought naming the school district, a "public institution" (such as one which my parish bulletin claims "may not be sued for any crimes committed in the past") as a defendant. A victim nearly 30 years later was able to ensure that local public school district was rightly held accountable for their failure to do the right thing when they had the chance. Wrong is wrong, and while justice may not always be as swift as we wish it to be, we must give the victims of child abuse the chance to right the wrongs perpetuated against them. That is why I support this legislation.

    To explain why it is necessary that we give child rapists no safe harbor, I could recount heinous crimes that have been perpetrated and covered up in years past by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, but one need only read the grand jury reports presented over the last few years.

    To explain why this legislation is still necessary today, one need only read the articles about abuse and cover-up in the Diocese of Altoona, not from years ago, but from 2016.

To explain to the citizens of my district that I bear no ill will toward the Church I belong to is something that I never thought I would have to do.

   Frankly, I would much rather be chastised from the altar than to be damned for not allowing justice to be done.

   And here is the Chaput letter included in a packet of material sent to Catholic school parents. You'll see that it includes some very misleading claims about the law's alleged failure to support all victims of abuse equally and the impact it will have on the church.

June 6, 2016

Dear friends,

   A bill is currently pending in our State Senate, HB 1947, that poses serious dangers for all of our local parishes, schools, PREP programs, charities and other Church ministries. With this letter, I urge you to write or telephone your local state senator and members of the state Senate Judiciary Committee to vote against HB 1947, and especially to oppose any retroactivity provision in the civil statute of limitation covering sexual abuse.

    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. But HB 1947 and bills like it are destructive legislation  being advanced as a good solution. 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, her schools and her people.

   HB 1947 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. In fact, HB 1947 actually excludes most victims. And it also targets innocent Catholic parishes and school families, like your own, who will bear the financial burden of crimes committed by bad individuals in the past, along with the heavy penalties that always result from these bad bills.

   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. The effect of bills like HB 1947 is to erase the sacrifices of generations of faithful Catholics who have done nothing wrong.

    The Church in Pennsylvania accepts its responsibility for the survivors of clergy sex abuse. It's committed to helping them heal for however long that takes. But HB 1947 and bills like it are not an answer. This kind of legislation is unjust and deeply misleading. It benefits too few victims, and it ends up punishing Catholic parishes and families who are innocent of any wrongdoing.

    This is a serious and time-sensitive matter. Please take a few minutes to review the important materials I've included with this letter. Senate hearings begin on or around June 13. 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. You can do that quickly and easily by visiting www.pacatholic.org. That's the website for our state Catholic Conference, and you'll see a prominent link on the homepage about this vital matter. Thank you and God bless you.

Sincerely yours in Jesus Christ,

Most Reverend Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.

Archbishop of Philadelphia

    Finally, here is a fact sheet prepared by the Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse sent sent to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee in advance of Monday's hearing.

Background: Currently in Pennsylvania, a survivor of child sex abuse has until age 50 to file criminal charges and age 30 to initiate a civil suit if the abuse occurred after 2002. Anyone abused before that year has much less time to report abuse.

HB 1947 seeks to eliminate time barriers to file criminal and civil cases for those abused after the bill becomes law. It would affect both private and public institutions, however much misinformation has been spread about this bill and its constitutionality.

Claim: HB 1947 is unconstitutional.

Fact: This charge has been leveled against attempts to reform the statute of limitations in numerous other states, including California, Delaware, Massachusetts and Connecticut. In all of these cases, the legislation was found to be constitutional.

Claim: HB 1947 does not apply to public institutions.

Fact: HB 1947 will apply equally to private and public institutions going forward. Due to the sovereign immunity protections afforded to state institutions by the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, it appears that this reform cannot apply retroactively to them.

Claim: HB 1947 specifically targets the Catholic Church.

Fact: Statute of limitations reform is not limited to any specific group or organization, religious or otherwise. In fact, there are countless institutions that have protected abusers, such as schools, hospitals, scout organizations, sports programs and juvenile facilities. Furthermore, over 90 percent of survivors were abused by family members or close acquaintances, which will also be covered by HB 1947.