Archdiocese statement on Senate Bill 575, CNN

Archdiocese statement on Senate Bill 575, CNN

Providing avenues for healing to victims of childhood sexual abuse and creating a safe environment for all children entrusted to the Church’s care form the foundation of the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s child protection efforts. Senate Bill 575 fails to promote either of these goals. For this reason, and for the reasons stated below, the Archdiocese of Baltimore is opposed to this legislation.

• SB 575 Fails to Protect Children: SB 575 would allow civil lawsuits against private entities (like the Catholic Church) that would result in monetary awards to victims and their lawyers. By setting aside the statute of limitations for reporting such claims, the law would encourage delayed reporting of abuse which could mean decades of delay in removing perpetrators from access to children and decades of delay in criminal prosecution.

• SB 575 is Unnecessary: The Archdiocese screens and trains all of its employees and priests, and has conducted more than 50,000 criminal background checks on its volunteers. It educates the more than 35,000 students in its schools in child abuse prevention and has long had an independent review board made up of Catholic and non-Catholic leaders in the community to insure that the Archdiocese is doing everything possible to protect children. The Church seeks to provide healing and reconciliation with victims – the Cardinal and his representatives have met with every victim who has requested a personal meeting. They have apologized many times both publicly and privately for the harm that has been done. The Archdiocese immediately offers to cover the cost for treatment and counseling for every person who comes forward to report abuse regardless of any limitations law, whether the perpetrator is a member of the clergy, employee, or volunteer, and regardless of how long ago the abuse occurred. The expenses are paid for the survivors and his/her family to go to a therapist and treatment of their own choosing.

• SB 575 Would Financially Cripple the Church and its Ministries: The Catholic Church is the largest private provider of social services and education in the State of Maryland. In California, the only other state to pass similar legislation, over 1,000 new plaintiffs filed suit against the Catholic Church after the legislation was enacted, according to the Los Angeles Times. As a result, California dioceses and religious orders are now defending claims in which the alleged abuse occurred as long ago as 75 years. Approximately 200 claims have been settled with over $250 million being paid to the plaintiffs, of which approximately $100 million went to their attorneys.

• Eliminating the statute of limitations is unfair and unconstitutional. Statutes of limitations exist to prevent unfairness in defending decades-old, stale claims. Witnesses die, memories fade, and evidence disappears. Allowing very old claims greatly increases opportunity for fraud (half of the cases filed against the Diocese of San Diego, which recently declared bankruptcy, involved dead priests). If a party is going to be sued for money damages, then that party should not have to wait an inordinate amount of time for the chance to prove its innocence.

• The legislation treats private and public institutions differently. Public institutions are protected by strict notice requirements and/or damages caps, and thus would not be subjected to the extreme consequences of SB 575. Despite the fact that abuse is far more prevalent in public schools, foster homes, juvenile detention facilities, etc., minor victims of abuse occurring in some public institutions may only have between 180 days or 1 year to report claims of abuse. In a Congressionally mandated study of sexual abuse in schools, prepared for the U.S. Department of Education and released in June 2004, Professor Charol Shakeshaft found that 6.7% of K-12 public school students — over 3 million children — reported that a school employee sexually abused them. SB 575 leaves unchanged the notice requirements and caps that apply to public institutions, while unfairly and unwisely creating financial devastation for the Catholic Church.

• SB 575 Isn’t About Justice: Maryland already has strong criminal laws that provide victims a “day in court” and punish perpetrators. Unlike many other states, Maryland has no statute of limitations on the criminal prosecution of felonies. Also, for about 20 years Maryland has had one of the broadest reporting laws in the country that requires everyone (doctors, teachers, priests, and regular citizens) to report information on child abuse anytime they have reason to believe a child has been abused, even if the abuse occurred long ago or even if the alleged perpetrator is dead.

The Maryland Catholic Conference, representing the three Maryland-serving Catholic dioceses, was instrumental in getting two pieces of legislation introduced this legislative session that provide real opportunities to protect children from sexual abuse. One measure would enable DSS to share information with the Archdiocese about an allegation of abuse involving Church personnel. The other bill would allow law enforcement officers to notify Archdiocesan school personnel when a student convicted of sexual abuse enrolls in a Catholic school. These measures, if enacted, would greatly enhance the Church’s ability to provide a safe environment for children, unlike SB 575, which is fundamentally about providing cash payments to victims and their attorneys.

Statement on CNN program

Last week, a CNN program about allegations involving former priest Jeff Toohey described the pain of two men who were abused by him. Their pain was and is real. The abuse should never have occurred. When the Archdiocese of Baltimore was contacted, immediate action was taken to remove the priest from ministry, to provide assistance to the two men and their families, and to communicate openly with all affected communities. The first allegation against Toohey came, in 1993, from a man who said that Toohey fondled him when he was 19 years old while staying overnight in Toohey’s bed. The Archdiocese believed this man and immediately, publicly, and permanently removed Toohey from all ministry. Sadly, many did not believe this victim. The victim and his family were offered assistance with counseling and other treatment, and such assistance continues to this day. As a part of its commitment to openness and to affirming victims of abuse, the Archdiocese again published Toohey’s name, misconduct and past assignments along with a list of other priests who had been credibly accused. In 2004, a second man came forward who alleged that he had been sexually abused as a minor by Toohey. The man was initially reluctant to provide his information, but the Archdiocese reported the allegation to criminal authorities, leading to Toohey’s prosecution. Again the Archdiocese initiated public communication about the allegation and offered counseling and other assistance to the victim and his family. Because there is no criminal statute of limitations on felonies such as child abuse, Toohey was prosecuted some 20 years after abusing the second victim and both men testified at Toohey’s sentencing. Toohey has been prohibited from performing any priestly ministry since 1993 and the Archdiocese has requested that Toohey be formally laicized, a request that remains pending with the Vatican.

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Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.