Allowing the retroactive filing of lawsuits, they say, could push institutions to the brink of ruin - a message expected to be reinforced at Masses this weekend.
"Bankruptcy and crippling debt are the only options for most dioceses in states where retroactive windows exist," Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput wrote in a May 20 letter to his archdiocese's financial advisers, in which he urged them to help defeat the measure. "Half the parishes in the Wilmington Diocese were sued."
That diocese did endure financial damage: It was forced to liquidate a roughly $50 million foundation to help fund the settlement. But it capped much legal liability and thwarted future lawsuits by using the same bankruptcy process now being invoked as a specter of doom in Pennsylvania.
Delaware churches that might have been slapped with enormous civil verdicts and dissolved were instead spared.
"We saved the parishes," said Anthony Flynn, counsel to the Diocese of Wilmington. "We had 26 parishes that were sued and were in the line of fire - and those parishes are still operating."
The measure awaiting action in the Pennsylvania Senate was approved by the House after a historic vote in April that reversed years of resistance. It retroactively would extend the civil statute of limitations for child sex abuse, letting anyone as old as 50 sue an individual or nongovernmental institution for abuse decades ago.
The turnabout followed outrage in the legislature over grand jury revelations and criminal charges relating to abuse and an alleged cover-up in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese.
Action by the Senate is anything but assured. No vote is planned and its leaders have not publicly said if they will formally consider the House bill.
The Senate Judiciary Committee - led by Montgomery County Republicans Stewart Greenleaf and John Rafferty Jr. - has agreed only to a June 13 hearing on whether the bill would violate the state constitution by reviving an expired statute.
That contention is a pillar of the argument from the bill's strongest opponents, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the Pennsylvania Insurance Federation. Constitutionality also came up in Delaware - one of many hurdles the Conatys and others had to clear.
'Wish I was dead'
Capuchin Friar Paul Daleo's abuse of Matt Conaty started in the 1970s, when the boy was in the fourth grade. It continued for four years.
Tom Conaty recalled a night when his young son couldn't sleep. He asked what was wrong.
"Dad," the boy said, "I wish I was dead."
His father pressed, but the boy stopped talking.
"If somebody had told me at the time what had happened," Tom Conaty said last week at the North Wilmington home where he runs his dental practice and raised three boys, "I'd probably still be in jail for what I'd do."
Matt Conaty struggled through adulthood with bulimia and depression. He broke free after the clergy-abuse allegations poured out of Boston and beyond in 2002. He sought therapy. Within months, he asked his parents to come to a session. There, he told them about Father Paul.
"Matty," his father recalled saying, "we'll pay for your therapy if it takes 100 years."
But he also urged his middle son to put the pain behind him. Just as Tom Conaty was forced to do when his own father, a Wilmington policeman, was killed in the line of duty the day after Christmas in 1946. At age 5 and the oldest of three, Tom became the man of the house.
His son, however, was plagued by knowing the chaplain who abused him had never been outed. "We have to stop him," Matt told him.
For 35 years, the elder Conaty had been an unpaid lobbyist for Delaware dentists. He resolved to use that experience in service of a different cause.
For about a year, the dentist treated patients during the day and spent nights strategizing with his son, who had a marketing job. Matt did research and mapped out strategy; Tom dialed legislators.
"I called them one at a time," Tom Conaty recalled. "Talked to them. Told them the truth."
Thomas S. Neuberger, a victims lawyer, offered legal assistance. Allies from the reform group Voice of the Faithful also walked the halls of the Capitol.
In the face of opposition from the Catholic Church, the bill nearly was diluted with amendments. But Tom Conaty pressed lawmakers, one by one, to keep the bill as it was drafted by its sponsor, State Sen. Karen Peterson. His efforts became crucial.
"He knew how to get into somebody's office," Peterson said.
In July 2007, the Child Victims Act became law, opening for two years a "lookback" window that let anyone sue for past child sex abuse.
When the unanimous Senate vote went through, Matt Conaty was inside the Capitol with his dad, a tall and handsome man who rarely lost his cool.
"I remember," Matt said, "seeing tears in his eyes."
Battle over bankruptcy
The first lawsuit against the Diocese of Wilmington landed two days later.
Robert Quill, a lawyer, said he had been abused in the 1960s by a school priest, the Rev. Francis DeLuca. He sued the diocese and DeLuca's parish.
Over the next two years, the Diocese of Wilmington was named in 131 lawsuits brought by 142 victims.
On a Sunday in October 2009, a day before the first of eight civil trials was to start in Dover, Wilmington Bishop W. Francis Malooly filed for bankruptcy. That halted all trials and lawsuits so claims could be resolved in much the same way as unpaid utility or rent bills: through negotiations overseen by a federal bankruptcy judge.
"We just couldn't allow the first plaintiff to get to the courthouse to ring up a big verdict because they were going to drain the funds that we had available," Flynn, the diocese lawyer, explained in an interview last month.
The move was not unprecedented. More than a dozen U.S. dioceses have filed for bankruptcy to manage a wave of lawsuits by clergy sex-abuse victims.
In all, U.S. Catholic institutions have paid some $2.2 billion in settlements and court-ordered abuse damages since 2002, said Terry McKiernan, founder of BishopAccountability.org, an advocacy group that has cataloged the scandal. The Los Angeles Archdiocese alone paid $660 million to 508 victims after California lifted its statute of limitations for a year.
The bankruptcy process in Wilmington proved acrimonious. It included a four-day trial in 2010 over whether an investment account administered by the diocese - and worth tens of millions of dollars - had to be included in the pool of money available to victims and other creditors.
The back-and-forth was so contentious that the judge at one point lifted a stay he had imposed on lawsuits against diocesan parishes not in bankruptcy. This cleared the way for civil trials to restart.
The first verdict, in December 2010, proved jarring: A $63 million judgment for John Michael Vai, abused as an altar boy at his Wilmington parish between 1966 and 1970. Seven other cases were pending against the same priest.
Quickly, negotiations resumed in bankruptcy court.
"That verdict directly led to the settlement," Flynn said, "because that created a furor."
In all, the diocese contributed $77.43 million to a settlement fund for victims - including $50 million from the foundation it was forced to dissolve. An additional $31.3 million was paid by two religious orders named in lawsuits.
Opponents of the Pennsylvania measure point to the layoffs of 10 percent of the Wilmington Diocese staff and the closure of St. Paul's, a school in Wilmington, as collateral damage.
"Diocesan resources, which had kept struggling parishes and schools open and filled the gaps for ministries that feed the hungry and serve those in need, were depleted to satisfy costly settlements and attorneys' fees as part of the bankruptcy proceeding," the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, which represents 10 Catholic dioceses, has argued.
Chaput, who leads the five-county Philadelphia Archdiocese and helped defeat a similar bill in Colorado when he was Denver's bishop, has asked priests here to enlist their parishioners to defeat the proposal by calling state senators.
"In the name of 'justice,' " Chaput wrote to financial advisers, the bill "would steal from the parents, children, disabled and elderly people of our Church and the ministries they rely on."
With 244,358 worshipers, 47 parishes, and 30 schools, the Wilmington Diocese is considerably smaller than its Philadelphia peer. But both are similar in that assets are not centrally owned. Some belong to parishes, some to the diocese itself.
Flynn, the Wilmington diocesan lawyer, acknowledged the staff layoffs - he said they had to downsize because insurance covered only $15.5 million of settlement costs. The grade school had been doing so badly financially it "may have closed anyway," he said.
After the diocese emerged as a reorganized entity in 2011, Wilmington's bishop said the process had "exacted a terrible toll on our ministries."
But the future was clearer: The bankruptcy settlement barred the filing of new claims of decades-old abuse against the church, or its parishes.
"The dioceses and the parishes," Neuberger said, "are now washed clean of the claims."
A new mission
Matt Conaty won't disclose the monetary settlement he accepted to end his lawsuit against the diocese, St. Edmond's, and the Capuchin order. Average payouts to victims were estimated to be about $500,000 or $740,000, depending on who is asked.
But Conaty said the victims also won something equally valuable at the bargaining table: records from the diocese and the religious order naming known abusers - and with no restrictions on sharing them publicly. For a crime that devastates an innocent child, he explained, that matters.
"There's no amount of money that's the right amount of money," said Conaty, now 47. "There's no way to put a person's leg on that's been taken off."
With the money, Conaty went to law school. He graduated, passed the Pennsylvania Bar, and plans to take Delaware's this summer. The goal: Become a state prosecutor and put away child abusers.
"This is my issue," he said, "going forward."