Retired Bishop Who Says He Was Abused Backs Colo. Bill on Victims

April 21, 2006

Denver - Breaking with Colorado Catholic leaders, a retired bishop from Detroit who says he was sexually abused by a priest decades ago met with lawmakers Thursday to promote bills aimed at helping childhood sex-crime victims file lawsuits.

Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, who stepped down as auxiliary bishop of Detroit in February, met with legislators one-on-one so the sessions could be closed to the public without violating state open-meetings laws.

"It's a private meeting. That's what the bishop wants. I assume it's because he's in someone else's diocese," said Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald, D-Golden.

Colorado law says any meeting of two or more legislators must be open to the public.

Gumbleton declined to comment as he left Fitz-Gerald's office. She said he met with about 30 state representatives and senators over four hours.

Colorado's three bishops have been fighting a bill that would allow victims to file lawsuits years after the alleged abuse, saying the church is being unfairly targeted. Fitz-Gerald, who is Catholic, is the sponsor.

"It was a unique opportunity for members of the General Assembly to look into the eyes of a victim, to look into the eyes of a bishop who was a victim, and ask anything they wanted to do the right thing," she said.

Tim Dore, a lobbyist for the Colorado Catholic Conference, said Gumbleton didn't tell Denver's Archbishop Charles Chaput that he would be visiting, as is customary. Dore said he had no comment on Gumbleton's visit.

Although Democrats control both chambers of the Legislature, Fitz-Gerald has so far been unable to line up enough votes for her bill in the Senate. She has been discussing possible changes as she tries to win support, and the Senate is expected to debate the measure next week.

Sen. Jennifer Veiga, D-Denver, said she was still struggling with the bill after meeting with Gumbleton. Veiga, who is a lawyer, said she was concerned about how many cases would be brought if the proposal passes. She said she was weighing that against a victim's need to seek justice.

"I don't feel like we're picking on anybody. I don't see it as something anti-Catholic," she said.

One bill being considered would eliminate the civil statute of limitations _ which limits how much time can pass before legal action is taken _ for future sex abuse cases.

In its current form, that bill would also allow lawsuits to be filed from as far back as the 1980s, and it too is opposed by Chaput, Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs and Bishop Arthur Tafoya of Pueblo.

At Sunday Masses across Colorado, parishoners have also been encouraged to contact legislators to oppose the bills.

The bishops did support lifting limitations for criminal prosecution of sexual abuse from now on, a proposal that has been signed into law by Gov. Bill Owens.

In January, Gumbleton, 76, testified in favor of getting rid of the civil statute of limitations in Ohio and revealed that a priest had inappropriately touched him at a Catholic high school in 1945. He is believed to be the first American bishop to say that he was sexually abused by clergy.

Gumbleton has also supported the ordination of gay men. That puts him at odds with a recent Vatican document that said most homosexual men should not be admitted to the priesthood.

In 2002 he wrote an article criticizing what he saw as the scapegoating of gay priests for the U.S. church's sex abuse scandal.

Fitz-Gerald said Gumbleton had already planned to be in Denver to support an expected hearing for her bill in the House. But, with the bill still tied up in the Senate, she said he decided to come anyway to support the bill. She said she didn't pay for him to travel to Denver.


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