Chaput Says Church Target of Abuse Bills

By Jean Torkelson
Rocky Mountain News [Denver CO]
February 6, 2006,1299,DRMN_15_4444433,00.html

Catholic Archbishop Charles Chaput appealed to his 375,000- member flock this weekend to demand changes in legislation that, if approved, would unleash damage caps and end the statute of limitations in sex abuse crimes against children.

"Every one of these bills unfairly burdens religious and private organizations and unfairly ignores sexual abuse in public schools and institutions. This is bad public policy and bad law," Chaput wrote in a letter, which he instructed be read throughout the archdiocese at every Saturday and Sunday Mass.

Until last year, Denver hadn't faced the multiple sex abuse cases that engulfed the Boston archdiocese in 2002 and spread to other dioceses in the nation, leading to massive parish closings and, in some cases, financial ruin.

But Denver's fortunes changed last summer after two middle-aged men separately charged that they had been molested in the 1960s by the Rev. Harold Robert White. Now in his 70s, White was removed from the priesthood in 2004.

The accusations began a cascade of civil lawsuits, which now stand at 24, most directed against White.

Now, three pieces of pending legislation would increase the vulnerability of the archdiocese and other nonprofits to suits stemming from decades-old allegations.

But public institutions, including schools, remain protected under the principle of "sovereign immunity," which curtails the ability of citizens to seek harsh penalties against the government.

Chaput said that was unfair because public schools also have sex abuse problems, which should "gravely concern" parents because two-thirds of children from Catholic homes attend public schools.

"The results of these bills are unfair, unequal and prejudicial in the legal and financial liability they place on Catholics because Catholics make up a disproportionate share of Colorado nonprofits and institutions, and legislators know it," Chaput wrote

People who wish to pursue a lawsuit against a public institution have only 180 days to file an intent-to-sue notice and their damages are capped at $150,000.

Public institutions would not be affected by House Bills 1088 and 1090, which call for sex abuse crimes against children to be prosecuted without time limits. Bill 1090 also removes any caps on civil damages and makes not only the guilty person liable for those damages, but also the employer, such as the archdiocese.

Furthermore, under Senate Bill 143, the lawsuit could go forward even if the accused party has been dead for years.

One of the bill's sponsors, Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald, said in an interview last week she decided legislation was needed because "the Father White victims have no way to get a sense of justice."

Fitz-Gerald insisted she wasn't targeting Catholics, but added: "What's become apparent is what wasn't an issue in Colorado is now an issue. There's a need to have a cleansing of what may have gone on in the past to let people have their day in court."

This weekend, on the archdiocese's Web site, Chaput takes issue specifically with Fitz-Gerald. Contrary to a radio interview she gave last week, Fitz-Gerald didn't ask for the archdiocese's input on her bill, he wrote.

Chaput said Fitz-Gerald met with archdioesan officials last December, at which time "Sen. Fitz-Gerald assured them that she would not proceed with any legislation without consulting them . . . Instead, without advance notice . . . she introduced Senate Bill 143."

Sunday night, Fitz-Gerald disputed Chaput's account, saying archdiocesan officials "never sought a meeting with me until I made overtures (to them) through several people." She conceded, however, there may have been a miscommunication about getting back to the archdiocese afterward.

Fitz-Gerald, who is Catholic, said she was surprised to hear Sunday evening about the reading of the letter in parishes. She said it was not read at her mission outpost of about 30 people, Coal Creek Canyon Catholic Community. She surmised the priest may have chosen not to read it because she was in the audience.


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