Archdiocese led lobby to stop abuse law change

  • Article by: TONY KENNEDY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 5, 2013 - 3:38 PM

Church spent heavily to prevent expansion of time limit for lawsuits by childhood sexual abuse victims.

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Father Kevin McDonough, left, in a 2002 file photo. House members say McDonough, the former vicar general of the archdiocese, personally lobbied them to maintain the statute of limitations.

Photo: Mike Zerby, Star Tribune

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The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis was at the forefront of extensive lobbying against efforts to expand the time limit for lawsuits by victims of childhood sexual abuse, according to a document obtained by the Star Tribune.

An internal accounting analysis prepared by the archdiocese shows that the lobbying association known as the Minnesota Religious Council received more than $800,000 from the Catholic Church during a seven-year period ending in the middle of 2008. A similar analysis was not available for subsequent years, but state lobbying records show the council spent more than $425,000 on lobbyists from 2006 through 2012.

Lobbying records also show the council doubled its lobbying force to six individuals on March 22, 2013, just weeks before the passage of the Child Victims Act. That law eliminated the statute of limitation for child sexual abuse cases going forward. It also created a three-year window for litigation of many previously barred claims in cases where churches, schools and other institutions failed to provide protection to children.

Since the law took effect in late May, at least 18 lawsuits seeking damages for sex abuse have been filed against Minnesota Catholic clergy and leaders.

Jim Accurso, a spokesman for the archdiocese, acknowledged that the archdiocese funded much of the costs of the Minnesota Religious Council, which he described as “a broad coalition of Minnesota churches from many denominations, led by a Lutheran pastor, that has worked together for common causes for many years. More importantly, all of the churches that are part of the MRC have a deep heartfelt commitment to creating and maintaining safe environments and protecting minors. This is within the core of all of our faiths.

“The Minnesota Religious Council was at the forefront of the effort to expand protections for all victims of child sexual abuse,” Accurso said. “We worked hard to make sure all faith groups were represented at the table … and we were successful.”

He also said the council had interest in “many other issues” besides the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse lawsuits.

The Rev. Karen Bockelman, the Lutheran pastor currently listed as director of the Minnesota Religious Council, said in an interview last week that the council’s main focus has been on litigation issues involving childhood sexual abuse. She said the council has not met recently and has no plans to meet.

Meanwhile, the cleric who leads the largest non-Catholic partner of the Minnesota Religious Council told the Star Tribune that local bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) were not consulted on lobbying expenditures. Nor was the ELCA asked to participate in any decisionmaking on lobbying, said the Rev. Peter Rogness, bishop of the ELCA’s St. Paul Area Synod.

Rogness said that while he and other ELCA bishops were not aware of the full scope of lobbying by the council, he supported the council’s opposition this year to a broad lifting of the statute of limitations in child sex abuse cases.

He said the ELCA’s concern, shared by many large institutions that deal with children, was that very old claims could be brought on vague levels of proof.

An intense lobbying battle

The bill’s chief Senate author, Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, and state Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-Hopkins, who carried the measure in the House, criticized Catholic leaders last week in separate interviews. Latz said years of lobbying by the archdiocese contradict the church’s recent expressions of sympathy and outrage on behalf of boys and girls who were abused by priests.

“They want the public to believe they are very caring about something, but behind the scenes they are very actively opposing the kind of steps or remedies or legislation that would hold them accountable for their conduct,” Latz said.

Cristine Almeida, who fought for passage of the ­Minnesota Child Victims Act as lead lobbyist for the National Center for Victims of Crime, said both sides employed an equal number of lobbyists, on the issue, and each side added more lobbyists in the session’s final weeks. Among those hired by the Minnesota Religious Council were longtime Capitol fixture Ted Grindal and Cullen Sheehan, who ran Norm Coleman’s last U.S. ­Senate campaign.

Almeida said she considered the archdiocese the principal force behind the council. One of its tactics, she said, was to try to amend the bill with language that would have disabled it — including a proposed amendment to hold institutions harmless for abuse by offenders they employ.

Dan Connolly, a lobbyist for the Minnesota Religious Council, said at a hearing this year that the group did not oppose expanding the statute of limitations for perpetrators, “because they know the facts.” But the organizations facing lawsuits “very rarely know the facts” and are defenseless, he said.

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