Sunday, August 7, 2011

In Denver, Chaput fought bill on abuse

Philadelphia Inquirer Aug. 7, 2011
By Jeremy Roebuck
Inquirer Staff Writer

DENVER - Five years ago, a handful of Colorado legislators sought to make it easier for victims of decades-old sex abuse to sue their tormentors and the organizations that protected them.

The Archdiocese of Denver fought back hard.

The state's Catholic hierarchy - through jeremiads delivered from the pulpit and alliance-building with municipal interest groups and teacher unions - turned an initially popular bill to extend the civil statute of limitations on sex crimes into something politically toxic. By the end of 2006, the bill was dead on the statehouse floor.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, then head of the state's largest archdiocese, stood at the center of that debate.

His vocal opposition made him an enemy to victims' groups, who viewed his political protest as a cunning effort to protect church coffers. But to those who saw their church as under siege from profiteers, Chaput emerged a hero.

"They thought they were fighting for their lives," said Annemarie Jensen, a political strategist who lobbied for the bill on behalf of the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault. "It was about as ugly a political fight as I've been involved with at the Capitol."

Since the nationwide church scandal began about a decade ago, five states have passed bills temporarily reopening the civil statute of limitations on sex-abuse cases. Eight others, including Pennsylvania, have considered them.

This so-called window legislation allows victims to seek justice years after their abuse by temporarily extending the period in which they can file claims. Although none of the adopted bills specifically mention the Catholic Church, archdioceses became the primary targets of litigation in each of the states that have passed them.

In California, one of the first to pass such legislation, more than 850 claims flooded courthouses during the one-year window that legislators opened, costing the church millions in damages and settlements.

The Diocese of Wilmington declared bankruptcy in 2009 after it was named in more than 175 suits following the state's passing of a two-year window. Last month, a judge agreed to a reorganization plan that includes a $77.4 million settlement for clergy sexual abuse. Last week, the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales agreed to pay $24.8 million in suits filed by 39 survivors of priest sex abuse in Delaware.
Marci Hamilton, a Bucks county lawyer who has represented several victims of clergy abuse and whose 2008 book Justice Denied tracked statute-of-limitations fights across the country, described Chaput's outspokenness as just the first element in the Denver Archdiocese's multipronged opposition to the bill.

"It was Chaput who decided public relations would change the course of this fight versus any other tactic," she said. "Things changed with Chaput's packaging in Colorado."

What separated the Denver Archdiocese's response from those that had come before was its direct appeal to the public and a degree of savvy political maneuvering unseen elsewhere.

See full story at Philadelphia Inquirer

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