For six hours yesterday, members of the Colorado State Senate heard testimony from both proponents and opponents of a proposed bill which would greatly expand the statute of limitations for victims of sexual abuse seeking recompense. The problem, according to critics however, is that the bill targets only private and religious entities--an act which many call blatantly anti-Catholic.
All three of Colorado’s Catholic Bishops have spoken out against proposed Senate bill 143, which cleared a Senate Committee hearing late Monday and could now head to the full Senate floor.
While Senate president Joan Fitz-Gerald adamantly argues that the bill is not aimed at the Catholic Church, even Vincent Carroll, a secular columnist for the Denver Rocky Mountain News had to raise an eyebrow.
He explained in a recent column 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.”
Citing what they called an unfairly balanced tilt to Colorado state law, the state’s Bishops asked in a recent joint letter, “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?”
Some 50 people were on hand to testify yesterday before the senate committee--many of them abuse survivors.
Martin Nussbaum, an attorney for the Archdiocese offered testimony in which he tried to shed light on the bill’s purported anti-Catholic bias. He spoke on the inequities of the proposed measure calling it fundamentally unfair that private institutions can get sued so harshly while public schools cannot.
This, he said hints at intolerance, specifically against the Church.
Jamila Spencer, of the Colorado Catholic Conference said that the Church is saying “most clearly that ‘we think this debate is important and we want to solve it, but we’re not the only place where it’s being done.’”
During the hearing however, she said that the Church was continually accused of deflecting the issue, with Senators arguing that the bill was not about the public schools.
That, according to Spencer, is precisely the problem. “I believe the Church is being scapegoated, she said.”
Allison Hintgen, a 21 year old student at Denver’s Regis University called the bill “fundamentally unfair”, echoing the Church’s concern that under the new legislation, all children aren’t truly protected.
To prove this point, the Archdiocese of Denver released a sordid list of some 85 cases of sexual abuse on the part of public school teachers Friday, which date back to 1997.
In a letter, read last week to all parishioners in the Archdiocese, Denver’s Archbishop Charles Chaput said that every one of the proposed pieces of legislation “ignores the serious problem of sexual abuse in public schools and other public institutions, and focuses instead on religious and private organizations.”
“In other words,” he said, “some Colorado legislators seem determined to be harsh when it comes to Catholic and other private institutions, and much softer when it comes to their own public institutions, including public schools. And it will be families, including Catholic families, who suffer.”
28-year old Julia Osiripaibul told CNA that she wanted to be there to “support all people who have been hurt and abused” but said that to limit the legislation merely to private and religious organizations was not true justice.
She said that in her opinion, the bill was severely lacking. “Whether a crime is committed in a public or private place, if it’s the same crime, it deserves the same punishment.”
Likewise, Tom Stroka of Boulder thought it important to show that “there are Catholics who are sympathetic toward victims of abuse but that we want justice for all.”
Hearing Chairman Ron Tupa is Stroka’s local state representative in Boulder and he wanted “to be present and to show him that, as a constituent, I disagree with how he’s handling this…I wanted to make my presence and opposition known to him.”
Spencer was quick to add a positive note to what many called a very difficult day for Catholics in Colorado. She said that more now than with any other issue she’s worked on, “the state’s Catholic faithful have been totally engaged on this issue and valiantly fighting for their Holy Mother Church.”