Yesterday, all three of Colorado’s Catholic Bishops blasted proposed state legislation which would lift the statutes of limitation on sexual abuse cases. Because of state sovereignty laws, they pointed out that this would unequally punish the Catholic Church while public school teachers and coaches accused of abuse would be all but exempt.
A joint statement was released yesterday by Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, Colorado Springs Bishop Michael Sheridan, and Pueblo Bishop Arthur Tafoya.
Recently, a number of Colorado State Representatives, led largely by State Senator Joan Fitz-Gerald offered related bills to the Colorado General Assembly which seek to eliminate or modify statutes of limitation allowing sexual abuse victims to wait up to 40 years before filing suits against Catholic and other private institutions in the state.
In their statement, the bishops explained that they agree “that the sexual abuse of a minor is a serious crime and a grave sin” and conceded that “The proposed pieces of legislation, whatever their final form, and whether they’re pulled from consideration or move forward, have sparked an important discussion.”
They asked however, “What should Colorado’s public policy be on civil lawsuits arising from such sexual abuse? And should two unequal kinds of justice apply — a soft version when the sexual offender works for a public entity, and another, much harder version when the offender works for a Catholic or private institution?”
“Nationally,” they pointed out, “the evidence is…irrefutable that sexual abuse and misconduct against minors in public schools is a serious problem — in fact, more serious than anywhere outside the home, including churches.”
“Since most Catholic children in Colorado attend public schools,” they added, “this should seriously concern the whole Catholic community.”
Citing what they called the unfairly balanced tilt to Colorado state law, the Bishops asked “why can a victim of teacher or clergy abuse in a Catholic school or parish wait a lifetime before initiating such litigation, while the victim of exactly the same and even more frequent abuse in a public school setting loses his or her claim by waiting 181 days?”
Likewise, the questioned, “why should a Catholic institution that is sued for such conduct be liable for massive, community-crippling damages, while guilty public institutions — even if sovereign immunity were waived — would face a mere $150,000 damages?”
The Bishops are not alone in their sentiments. Vincent Carroll, a columnist for the Denver Rocky Mountain News wrote today that “Colorado Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald says her bill temporarily lifting the statute of limitations on sexual abuse lawsuits isn't aimed at any one group - you know, such as the Catholic Church.”
He sarcastically quipped, “Of course not. Such special legislation would be entirely out of line and Senate presidents never toy with anything so improper.”
Carroll noted that the “only allegations Fitz-Gerald or anyone else seems to mention in relation to her legislation involve the church. And that the only organization already targeted by a smoothly functioning coalition of high-powered plaintiffs' attorneys and victim groups is the church.”
But, he pointed out, Fitz-Gerald seems determined to pass off an act seemingly aimed squarely at the Catholic Church as merely coincidence.
Lamenting that Catholics have “learned about the national scope and human impact of sexual abuse the hard way” the bishops wrote that they “are wholeheartedly committed to helping victims heal and doing everything we can to protect our families in any Church-related environment.”
“Every victim of sexual abuse suffers deeply and deserves our compassion,” they said, “But the facts clearly show that the sexual abuse of minors is in no way a uniquely — or even disproportionately — ‘Catholic’ problem.”
They highlighted the fact that “too many public authorities have had too little accountability on the issues of sexual misconduct and abuse for too long.
“As a society,” they said, “if Coloradans are really serious about ending the sexual abuse of minors, that needs to change.”
In strong final words, the bishops said that “For the sake of justice and common sense — and for the sake of their own children — Catholics need to demand from Colorado lawmakers an end to our state’s legal inequities in dealing with childhood sexual abuse.”