Catholic church paid Maryland lobbyists more than $200K to help limit, prevent abuse lawsuits

Baltimore Sun [Baltimore MD]

December 8, 2022

By Lee O. Sanderlin

For years, the three Roman Catholic dioceses operating parishes in Maryland have successfully lobbied lawmakers to keep sexual abuse survivors from filing lawsuits against the church, a review of lobbying records shows.

Over the past five years, the Maryland Catholic Conference, the church’s public policy arm for the three dioceses, has spent more than $200,000 hiring former lawmakers and government officials and consultants as lobbyists to stop the Maryland General Assembly from expanding the state’s statute of limitations on lawsuits arising from sexual abuse claims.

“This is money that goes into collection,” said Teresa Lancaster, an Edgewater attorney who was abused five decades ago while attending Archbishop Keough High School. “The church is using it to lobby against children.”

Under state law, childhood sexual abuse survivors have until their 38th birthday to file a lawsuit or three years after their abuser was convicted in criminal court, whichever is later.

A spokesman for the Baltimore archdiocese — the largest of the three constituting the Maryland Catholic Conference — wrote in an email that the church has “on multiple occasions in the past” supported legislation extending the time for victims of child sexual abuse to file lawsuits.

“It is important to note that there is no statute of limitation on the criminal prosecution of child sexual abuse in Maryland,” Archdiocese of Baltimore spokesman Christian Kendzierski wrote. “Anyone guilty of such crimes can be held accountable until the day they die.”

First introduced in 2019, the Hidden Predator Act would have given all living survivors a chance to sue their abusers and enablers, through what is called a “look-back window,” where survivors would have two years from the act becoming law to file a lawsuit regardless of when the abuse happened. The bill has died repeatedly in the state Senate.

The Catholic Church’s lobbying is under renewed scrutiny with the impending release of a report by the Maryland Attorney General’s Office that is expected to detail the extent of sexual abuse, and its cover-up, in the Archdiocese of Baltimore going back eight decades.

The report, which cannot be released without a judge’s permission because it relies on grand jury materials, contains the names of 158 priests and other clergy who abused more than 600 people — some of whom were young enough to be in preschool at the time.

Over the past three years alone, the Archdiocese of Baltimore, the Diocese of Wilmington and the Archdiocese of Washington have combined to pay two men — former Gov. Martin O’Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese and former Sen. Robert “Bobby” Zirkin — $166,000 solely to fight legislation that would expand the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse survivors, a review of lobbying activity reports shows.

Neither Abbruzzese nor Zirkin returned phone calls seeking comment.

In 2017, lobbying records show the dioceses hired Venable, Maryland’s largest law firm, to influence portions of a bill lawmakers approved to expand the civil statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse claims to 20 years past the age of adulthood. The law as written effectively keeps the church immune from any abuse claims dating back more than 38 years.

The Catholic Church had opposed similar bills in 2015 and 2016, but lobbying reports are not readily available for those years.

Mary Ellen Russell, who was executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference when the 2017 bill was signed into law, described that year’s bill at the time as “much fairer” than in previous years.

Initially hailed as a win for survivors, the bill was later criticized because it increased the standard needed to be proved in court to hold an abuser’s employer accountable.

All told, publicly available lobbying reports reviewed by The Baltimore Sun show the Catholic Church has spent more than $200,000 in Maryland since 2017 on outside lobbyists to prevent and limit sexual abuse survivors’ ability to file lawsuits.

Del. C.T. Wilson, a Democrat representing a portion of Charles County who himself is a child sexual abuse survivor and the usual sponsor of the House of Delegates’ version of the Hidden Predator Act, said it is high time the Catholic Church stops fighting its passage. Wilson also was the key sponsor of the 2017 bill that passed, with the support of the church.

“If you’re a Christian, if you’re a man of the cloth, why would you want to hide the truth?” Wilson said in an interview with The Sun. “Why would the truth be bad?”

Kendzierski said in his email that the church has supported survivors’ rights to compensation, and opposes the Hidden Predator Act because it views it as unfair.

“The church has not and will not support legislation that treats public and private institutions differently, that seeks to punish more harshly private institutions through unlimited damages,” Kendzierski wrote.

But victims’ advocates view the statutes of limitations as unfair to those who were abused. For some victims, memories of their abuse may be repressed or forgotten until later in life, meaning their recourse for financial remuneration is virtually nonexistent.

Kurt Rupprecht, a 52-year-old global supply chain manager who grew up in Salisbury, is one such victim who repressed his traumatic memories until after his 40th birthday.

A priest at Rupprecht’s childhood parish, St. Francis de Sales, first sexually abused him when he was 9 years old. He was removed from the ministry and is considered “credibly accused” of sexual abuse.

St. Francis is part of the Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware — a state where survivors don’t face the same restrictions to filing civil suits because Delaware lawmakers passed legislation removing the statute of limitations in 2007 — but Rupprecht cannot sue because his abuse happened in Maryland.

Survivor Kurt Rupprecht speaks at a news conference by the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), demanding that the Baltimore archdiocese support public release of an Attorney General’s Office report detailing 80 years of sexual abuse. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Rupprecht said in an interview that he has incurred “tremendous” expenses for psychological and medical treatment as a result of the trauma he experienced.

A civil trial, Rupprecht said, would force his abuser, and possibly those who enabled him, to take the stand and testify about their actions, providing a long-sought-after public accounting for the torment he suffered.

“The amount of healing and at least some level of closure that could bring, you can’t put that in words,” he said.

In 2021, Zirkin, the former Baltimore County senator turned lobbyist, provided a letter on behalf of the Maryland Catholic Conference claiming that the passage of a Senate version of the Hidden Predator Act would be “devastating” and could open the church up to “unsubstantiated” claims of abuse.

“We have noted in connection with past legislation that eliminating the civil statute of limitations retroactively raises serious equity concerns and is particularly unnecessary in Maryland, which does not have a criminal statute of limitations on child sex abuse,” Zirkin wrote.

The lobbying is an about-face for Zirkin, who, in 2019, was one of the few senators who pushed for the Hidden Predator Act’s passage, saying it was not the intention of the legislature in 2017 to permanently protect the Catholic Church or other institutions.

Calling the Maryland Senate’s continued failures to pass his bill “intolerable,” Wilson said the release of the attorney general’s report would leave no excuses this year should his bill, which he already has filed, not reach incoming Gov. Wes Moore’s desk by the end of the session.

“You know what I want these people to have for once in their God damn lives?” Wilson said of survivors. “A victory.”

While many are barred from suing because of the statute of limitations, the Archdiocese of Baltimore does pay out claims. To date, meaning since the first settlements were paid, the Baltimore archdiocese has paid more than $13.2 million to 301 victims, with the figure including money for counseling as well as direct payments, Kendzierski wrote. A “retired, non-Catholic” judge mediates claims from Baltimore-area survivors and makes recommendations as to what their financial award should be.

However, that figure pales in comparison to settlements won in other states, including those that passed legislation similar to the Hidden Predator Act.

For example, the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey, agreed earlier this year to pay $87.5 million to hundreds of victims who had sued the church following state lawmakers’ 2019 decision to extend its civil statute of limitations.

In neighboring Delaware, the diocese declared bankruptcy in 2009, two years after lawmakers there passed the Child Victims Act, which, like Wilson’s bill, gave survivors a two-year window to bring all claims against the church that previously were barred by the civil statute of limitations.

The Wilmington Diocese ended up paying more than $77 million in settlements as a result of the new law.

Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori, the highest-ranking Catholic priest in Maryland, previously was a bishop in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where, in 2003, he oversaw a sell-off of church property to fund a $21 million settlement for 40 victims.

In 2010, Connecticut lawmakers were considering a bill similar to Delaware’s that would have eliminated the statute of limitations on civil lawsuits for sexual abuse. Lori was one of three Connecticut church officials who wrote a letter to parishioners statewide warning them of what they considered the bill’s “devastating impact.”

“The bottom line is that this is terrible public policy, discriminatory by its nature, and a huge threat to us all,” Lori and the other two officials wrote.

That bill failed.

Rupprecht, the abuse survivor from Salisbury, said he disagrees with Lori and other Catholic priests who claim the potential for large legal settlements will ruin the church, noting that despite filing for bankruptcy in 2009, the Wilmington Diocese still exists.

“They’re still going strong,” Rupprecht said. “If anything, the parishioners, the people in the pews, they actually have a stronger sense that there’s been a reckoning and things are being fixed.”

Ultimately, a bill’s passage will not heal him, Rupprecht said.

The closure a civil trial might bring still won’t be enough to restore his faith in the church and God. Any money he could receive in a settlement will not suddenly stop him from remembering every day what happened when he was 9. It will not make him any less angry.

“You could put a million dollars in front of me or you could put a red pill in front of me, and the red pill would let me wake up one day, one day, and feel normal and not think about this,” he said. “Just one day of not knowing it and living it, trust me, I would take the red pill. It’s as simple as that.”