Senate President Denies Vendetta

By Jean Torkelson and Kevin Flynn
Rocky Mountain News [Colorado]
February 24, 2006,2777,DRMN_23906_4493058,00.html

Insisting she has nothing to hide, Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald on Thursday released more than 1,000 pages of documents she says absolve her of suspicion that she's out to get the Catholic Church.

"Unfortunately, recent allegations have impugned my motivation for introducing Senate Bill 143 to such a degree that I will waive confidentiality and release these privileged documents," Fitz-Gerald said in a news release.

Her decision followed open records requests by radio talk show host and attorney Dan Caplis and the Rocky Mountain News for correspondence and other documents relating to the bill. Fitz-Gerald, D- Coal Creek Canyon, allowed a review of the material for about 90 minutes at her Senate office Thursday.

Fitz-Gerald has come under fire from Caplis and, in more veiled terms, from Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput over her bill.

SB 143, which is pending in the full Senate, would open a two- year window allowing the filing of sex abuse lawsuits against nonprofit organizations and churches that otherwise would be beyond the statute of limitations. The Denver Archdiocese faces 24 such lawsuits filed since last summer.

The church argues any such legislation should also cover public institutions, such as schools. The penalties against public entities are greatly restricted by the principle of sovereign immunity.

The bill mirrors a 2003 California law that unleashed 800 lawsuits, most against the Catholic Church.

Critics of Fitz-Gerald want to know if she communicated with attorneys involved in crafting the California law or those representing plaintiffs in the cases against the Denver Archdiocese. The implication is that she may have worked with them on the bill to target the church - a charge she denies.

The documents include a letter from Marci Hamilton, a constitutional lawyer who represented some California victims and who spoke at a hearing in favor of SB 143. She was put in touch with Fitz-Gerald by the organization Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

Another document is a draft of an amendment designed to weed out bogus abuse claims before a lawsuit could proceed. It was drafted by Tom Roberts, a Colorado attorney involved in some of the Denver Archdiocese's 24 cases.

Caplis, who reviewed the documents Thursday, said on his KHOW radio show later that the presence of the attorneys' documents was "absolutely stunning" and contrary to Fitz-Gerald's previous statement that she had not consulted with plaintiffs' attorneys.

"To me, this is really disturbing," he said. "The senator sees it differently."

Fitz-Gerald said her contact with the lawyers was proper. She said she consulted Hamilton on the constitutionality of the statute of limitations and was put in touch with Roberts when she requested help from an attorney familiar with crafting sex-abuse bills.

"He's got a bully pulpit, I don't," she said of Caplis. "I'm not going to engage in a he said-she said."

Earlier, the two sparred in her office.

"This would be a massive toll on the diocese - 30-, 40-year-old cases with 80-year-old men. It seems to me that's not a fair balance," Caplis said of the bill's impact.

Fitz-Gerald defended the measure, saying a burden of proof was still necessary and that it is "neutral" toward all institutions.

But she conceded she developed the measure after two alleged victims came forward last summer to accuse two Denver Catholic priests of abuse that allegedly happened in the 1950s and '60s.

"After (just) two people came forward?" Caplis asked.

"It was the beginning," she said. "There were victims out there with no way to get into court."

Among the documents, with the names redacted, are about 150 communications in favor of the bill and 700 against. Most of those came after Chaput urged, in a letter read from pulpits, that parishioners in his 375,000-member archdiocese fight the legislation. There were no personal replies from Fitz-Gerald, who said she didn't have enough staff for more than form-letter answers.

Some of the communications were from people who said they were abused by priests and others from Catholics echoing Chaput's concern that the church is the primary target of the bill.

"My only son . . . committed suicide due to the sex abuse by a priest. At the time of the abuse he was 16 and died at 20," said a Texas woman who favors the legislation.

But a Denver opponent wrote, "SB 143 targets me, a Catholic woman in Denver. The sexual abuse that took place 25-40 years ago is horrific, but it is not just to punish parishioners today who had nothing to do with the . . . crimes of some priests decades ago."


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