- Article by: TONY KENNEDY , Star Tribune
- Updated: November 4, 2013 – 9:17 PM
Church spent heavily to prevent expansion of time limit for lawsuits by childhood sexual abuse victims.
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.
On Feb. 28, Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, proposed an amendment to keep the six-year statute of limitations, unless the victim had reported the claim to law enforcement or had physical evidence (like DNA).
“I want the plaintiffs to have their day in court,” Ortman said at the hearing. “But I also want the defendants to have some certainty to when the claim can end. They have a business to run.”
Latz opposed the proposal. “No 5-year-old or 6-year-old says I better save my underwear for years later when I am psychologically ready to deal with this,” he said.
Ortman, now a GOP candidate for U.S. Senate, withdrew the amendment. The Senate passed the final measure unanimously and the House by all but three votes.
In addition to the Minnesota Religious Council, House members say the Rev. Kevin McDonough, the former vicar general of the archdiocese, personally lobbied them to maintain the statute of limitations. McDonough, who has come under fire for his handling of clergy sex abuse investigations for the archdiocese, resigned from the board of the University of St. Thomas last month in connection with a suit filed against a Catholic studies professor there.
“He was forceful in trying to kill this piece of legislation,” Simon said.
Some of those meetings occurred in 2007 or 2008, when McDonough was Senate chaplain. At one of those meetings, Simon remembers McDonough telling him that an expanded statute of limitation would expose victims to the additional emotional pain of retelling their story of abuse.
“I thought it was totally inappropriate and borderline offensive,” Simon said.
Accurso said McDonough disclosed his “long history of involvement with the Minnesota Religious Council” in 2007, when he was nominated to serve as Senate chaplain. At the time, McDonough agreed not to lobby any senators while he was chaplain, and McDonough stuck to that, Accurso said. His term expired in 2010.
In the weeks before the Child Victims Act passed this year, McDonough tried to persuade Rep. John Lesch, D-St. Paul, to vote against it.
“He just said it would be very problematic for what they were trying to do [to help victims],” said Lesch, a prosecutor for the city of St. Paul who once studied to be a Catholic priest.
Lesch said he told McDonough that he couldn’t support the church’s position because he saw institutional coverups of child abuse while in the seminary and manipulation of young people by adults.
“This is how the church has been since I’ve been alive,” Lesch said.
Money funded lobbying
A document from the archdiocese detailed $830,145 in church spending to support the Minnesota Religious Council from mid-2001 to mid-2008. A source close to the archdiocese said nearly all of the money went to pay lobbyists working to block the expansion of the statute of limitations.
A footnote on the document said the archdiocese expected 50 percent of the total $830,145 to be reimbursed by non-Catholic partners in the council. Another reimbursement covering 25 percent of the expense was expected to come from five Catholic dioceses in greater Minnesota — Winona, Crookston, St. Cloud, New Ulm and Duluth, the footnote said.
The analysis showed that reimbursements lagged in every year. By June 30, 2008, the non-Catholic partners owed $201,600 and the outstate dioceses owed $92,100, according to the document. The only documented payment from a non-Catholic partner was $5,000, made by “Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod,” not the ELCA, in October 2003.
The source said the archdiocese absorbed all expenses that weren’t reimbursed during the 2001-08 time period.
Rogness, the Lutheran bishop, said the first time he heard of any ELCA obligation to pay for lobbyists hired by the Minnesota Religious Council was “very recently,” from Bockelman. “We’ve never received a bill,” Rogness said. “None of us have it in our budget.”
Said Accurso: “It looks to me like a communication breakdown.” Accurso said the Minnesota Religious Council was formed 20 years ago when victim advocates won a change in state law that was favorable to litigants. He said the creation of the council has allowed for “all religious faiths, institutions and schools” to be at the table when state legislation that affects them is considered.
Baird Helgeson contributed to this report. Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213