Commentary: Justice for victims won’t devastate the church

By John Salveson

Published: June 2, 2016 | The Philadelphia Inquirer

The one thing I have in common with Archbishop Charles Chaput is that I live in Philadelphia but wasn’t born here. I grew up in New York and moved here in 1978. He moved here from Denver in 2011.

I point this out because I believe the archbishop’s relative inexperience here has led him to miscalculate the nature of Philadelphia Catholics. Let me explain.

The archdiocese has launched a campaign aimed at convincing Philadelphia-area Catholics that changing the laws pertaining to the sexual abuse of children is a very bad and dangerous idea. He wants them to call their legislators and tell them not to support House Bill 1947.

The bill would remove the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution for child sexual abuse, raise the maximum age at which a child victim may file a civil suit to 50, and make it possible for more child sexual abuse victims to bring lawsuits against any Pennsylvania diocese that enabled and protected their predators.
The archdiocese’s message, promoted through meetings with clergy, articles in the archdiocesan digital publication, an “Action Alert” from the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, and fliers distributed to the faithful, is ominous: The passage of H.B. 1947 could lead to bankruptcy, crippling debt, closures of parishes and schools, and erosion of services to the needy.

In addition to threatening financial devastation, the archdiocese says the legislation unfairly targets the Catholic Church and is unconstitutional.

Much of this message is simply not true.

Eight states have enacted legislation similar to H.B. 1947. Despite several attempts to prove otherwise, rulings in seven of these states found the legislation constitutional. The overwhelming trend is that courts support these bills, as evidenced most recently in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

No diocese in America has ever filed for involuntary bankruptcy or been forced into bankruptcy because of victims’ lawsuits. Several have entered bankruptcy voluntarily as a way to stop litigation and as a negotiating tactic. When they settled, they emerged from bankruptcy in a perfectly healthy state, assisted greatly by massive payments from their insurance carriers to help cover settlement costs.

The vast majority of diocesan school closings across the country in recent history have occurred in response to an overall decline in church membership and attendance – not because of abuse settlements. The archbishop has proven this point. He himself has closed parishes and schools – in an archdiocese where abuse settlements have been nearly nonexistent.

And the hungry and homeless who receive lifesaving services from Catholic Social Services have no need to worry – the government pays 81 percent of the cost of those services, according to Catholic Social Services’ 2015 annual report.

Philadelphians know that the 2005 grand jury report on the Archdiocese of Philadelphia uncovered decades of abuse and cover-ups. The 2011 grand jury report showed that little had changed. This year’s grand jury report on the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown found a decades-long cesspool of abuse and cover-ups. One of the most chilling documents discovered was a chart created by diocesan officials to keep track of the recommended settlement amounts for different levels of abuse.

Considering the evidence, I’m betting that Philadelphia Catholics are not going to buy into the archbishop’s campaign against H.B. 1947. I don’t think they are going to beg their legislators to continue to give a free pass to the Catholic Church.

I believe Philadelphia Catholics are tired of church leaders claiming they are the victims and telling everyone who will listen that the sky is falling.

I think Philadelphia Catholics would prefer that the church admit what it did, stop stonewalling, do everything possible to clean up the mess, and move on.

I sure hope I win this bet, because the safety of Pennsylvania’s children depends on it.

John Salveson is president of the Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse.

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