In a letter sent to all parishes of the Philadelphia Archdiocese, Archbishop Charles Chaput renewed attention on a Pennsylvania bill that he said would endanger many of the parishes, schools and charities of the state’s 3.2 million Catholics.
It outlined the provisions of House Bill 1947, which addresses provisions to protect children from sexual abuse.
“Unfortunately,” Archbishop Chaput wrote, “it also contained damaging language that would have allowed retroactive civil suits to be filed against religious and private institutions, while protecting public entities from the same kind of lawsuits for exactly the same kinds of sexual abuse.”
The bill passed overwhelmingly in the state House last spring. The Senate voted 49-0 for an amended version of the bill that removed the provision on retroactivity, “largely because of its incompatibility with our state constitution,” the archbishop wrote.
The Senate bill kept other provisions “that would have served the needs of abuse survivors,” the archbishop wrote.
“Many of you made your concerns about HB 1947 very clear to our lawmakers this year, and it made a difference. When contact with our legislators is done respectfully, in a spirit of good will, the public life of our commonwealth is well served.” — Archbishop Charles Chaput
The amendment stripped the provision that would allow plaintiffs to bring suits on child abuse that may have occurred years and decades ago, perhaps after witnesses have died and memories have faded. Such lawsuits currently are barred by Pennsylvania’s statutes of limitation.
“Retroactive removal of the civil statute of limitation is unconstitutional under our commonwealth’s constitution,” Archbishop Chaput wrote.
Last spring, after passage of the bill in the House, the archbishop, clergymen and lay people throughout Pennsylvania stressed that lifting the civil statue was unjust, and he reiterated that in his recent letter.
He also criticized the strategy of the bill’s proponents.
“By unreasonably insisting on keeping retroactive provisions in the bill, a small number of individuals failed whole segments of the population who stood to benefit from the bill’s other measures,” he wrote.
Because of the Senate’s changes to the bill, it needed to be reconsidered in the House. But with the General Assembly winding down its remaining days it seems certain the House will not consider the bill and it will expire this year.
“This means that none of its more acceptable measures will be passed into law,” the archbishop wrote.
He said the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is “fully committed” to protecting young people from sexual abuse and assisting victims of past abuse with their healing, adding “this will not change.”
The archbishop warned about threats to “the health of our parishes and ministries” should a bill like HB 1947 become law.
Large cash settlements for plaintiffs have led to financial distress and declarations of bankruptcy in many U.S. dioceses where states have permitted retroactive lawsuits for decades-old cases of abuse.
Archbishop Chaput praised the activities of ordinary Catholics this year in contacting legislators to oppose the House bill.
“Many of you made your concerns about HB 1947 very clear to our lawmakers this year, and it made a difference,” he wrote. “When contact with our legislators is done respectfully, in a spirit of good will, the public life of our commonwealth is well served.”
After the new legislative session begins in January 2017, new bills like HB 1947 would need to be reintroduced, and the archbishop found that possibility likely.
Nevertheless, he promised “to keep you informed as we deal with these issues.”