Cardinals Scramble To Defeat Abuse Bills
Friday, March 24, 2006
Roman Catholic Church officials are putting a full-court press on Maryland legislators to reject bills that would extend the time allowed for victims of childhood sex abuse to file lawsuits against abusers and their employers.
Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of the Washington archdiocese and Cardinal William H. Keeler of the Baltimore archdiocese have gotten involved, expressing opposition to the bills to House Judiciary Committee members directly or through intermediaries. The archdioceses also have hired a prominent Annapolis lobbying firm, Schwartz & Metz, to supplement the efforts of the Maryland Catholic Conference, their regular lobbying arm.
"Almost everyone on the committee has acknowledged to me that the church has called them or called their ministers about the bill, and they are meeting with every member of the committee, including me," said Del. Pauline H. Menes (D-Prince George's), the bills' principal sponsor.
Del. Carol S. Petzold (D-Montgomery) described the church's lobbying as "just short of frantic. It appears to be a very high priority with them."
Some lawmakers also reported that Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan had conveyed to them the church's concerns.
Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for the Washington archdiocese, said that the church's lobbying was not unusual and that "we are doing the same kinds of things we do with any bill" that affects the church.
Under Maryland law, lawsuits by childhood abuse victims can be filed until the victim is 25. The two bills would significantly ease that restriction.
One would let victims file suit until they are 42; the other would open a two-year window during which victims of any age could sue.
Supporters say the bills are needed because victims typically do not report the abuse until they are in their thirties or forties. Church officials say it would be hard for defendants to present an adequate defense decades after an alleged incident, and they note that Maryland has no time limit on criminal charges against a child abuser.
Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore), a co-sponsor of the bills, said he was contacted by a local rabbi who had received a call from Keeler about the legislation and was relaying the cardinal's concerns. Rosenberg said the rabbi, whom he declined to name, reported that the cardinal was upset that Jewish lawmakers were sponsoring the bills. Rosenberg and Menes are Jewish.
"To make a point of the religion of the sponsor of a bill . . . was beneath contempt," Rosenberg said he told the rabbi.
Keeler is in Rome, and his spokesman said Wednesday and yesterday that he could not be reached for comment.
Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons (D-Montgomery) said Duncan, who is running for governor, telephoned him recently to say that McCarrick was "very concerned about the bills."
Duncan spokesman David Weaver said that McCarrick had spoken about the legislation with Duncan, who is Catholic, but that the cardinal "did not ask Doug to make calls on his behalf."
Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, also a candidate for governor, said that church officials "have made me aware of their concerns about this issue" but that neither he nor city officials have become involved.
Committee member Anthony G. Brown (D-Prince George's), who is Catholic, said he and his wife were invited by McCarrick to "a social call" at the cardinal's residence a couple of weeks ago.
They discussed several matters, including the bills extending the statue of limitations, said Brown, who is O'Malley's running mate.
Staff writers Matthew Mosk and John Wagner contributed to this report.