Panel OKs Sex Abuse Bill
50 Witnesses Testify on Measure's Impact on Catholic Church
By Jean Torkelson
Rocky Mountain News [Denver CO]
February 14, 2006
National experts, lawyers and the Murphy brothers - first in a long line of sex abuse survivors - put the Catholic Church center stage Monday in more than six hours of testimony on a bill to allow long-ago sex abuse cases to be brought to civil court.
Senate bill 143 cleared the committee late Monday after nearly 50 people testified.
Although the bill's backers have repeatedly said it doesn't target the Catholic Church, the theme of every witness was its effect on the Catholic Church.
The Denver Archdiocese is fighting the bill because it makes churches and nonprofits vulnerable to decades' old cases but doesn't include public entities, such as schools, which are protected by the principle of "governmental immunity."
But sex abuse victims testified that the only way they could get justice from past clergy abusers was to be able to retrieve old church records and bring their claims forward no matter how old.
"I've been paralyzed, but you have set me free," said Martin Murphy, one of three brothers from Colorado Springs who testified they were all abused by the Rev. Leonard Abercrombie at Camp St. Malo in the 1960s. His brother John testified they had gone there as innocent children "interested in bikes and kites and pollywogs" until Abercrombie destroyed their innocence.
Abercrombie, who died in 1994, and Harold Robert White, who was removed from the priesthood last year, are the two priests named in 24 separate lawsuits filed in the Denver archdiocese since last summer.
"There are more known child abusers floating around today as clergy than in any other profession," said the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a Washington D.C.- based priest, author and canon lawyer who assists the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. Most survivor witnesses who testified were members of that group.
Doyle said victims "had their souls raped" by priest abuse, but fear of hell instilled by the church kept them silent for years, which is why it's important to open the window for bringing old cases forward.
Lawyers for the church disputed Doyle's contention that priests were, as a class, most to blame for sex abuse, but they were chided on several occasions by committee members for not staying focused on the issue.
Martin Nussbaum, who represents the archdiocese, implored the committee, "let's join hands together" to stop child abuse by including public entities, but an annoyed state Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald told him he had gone "far afield," in his testimony, and added, "I'm not a highly paid lawyer like you are."
Nussbaum was asked specifically if the church could support the bill if public entities were included.
"You know, I'd have to check with my client," Nussbaum replied, bringing a burst of derisive laughter from the packed hearing room.
Tim Dore, executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference, began listing reforms the church had put in place since the national clergy scandal broke in 2002, including background checks on everyone "from the altar boys to the person who dusts the altar."
Sen. Peter Groff cut him off.
"This idea that 'we may have done something (wrong) in the past but look what we're doing now' is despicable to me," Groff said, his voice rising. "You're in the church, you have a higher calling. You should be out in front of this bill. This doesn't cut it, Mr. Dore . . . it's shameful."
Interspersed with the expert testimony was a line of sex abuse survivors who detailed horrors of predator priests. A slightly smaller number identified themselves as Catholic parishioners concerned over how the bill could force their parishes to cut back on programs and charitable work. A mirror bill in California, passed in 2002, produced a flood of 800 civil suits, the vast majority directed against the Catholic Church.
Tom Koldeway, who said he survived sex abuse from a Colorado priest years ago, told the committee the only way he could get at the old files is through a new law.
"There are documents at the chancery which will condemn the church," he said.
But parishioner Donna Priester countered that a flood of lawsuits could mean "the sale of our buildings or our land that parishioners established 130 years ago."
Meanwhile, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee said he plans to "call the Catholic Church's bluff" today when a bill on child sex abuse is heard.
Rep. Terrance Carroll, D-Denver, said lawmakers plan to amend a bill concerning childhood sexual abuse to make it as easy to sue public institutions as it is to sue private institutions.
"Basically, we're going to call the Catholic Church's bluff," Carroll said. He said lawmakers will introduce an amendment to House Bill 1090 that removes the statute of limitations against public institutions as well as private institutions such as churches.
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