According to a report commissioned by three law firms, the Roman Catholic Church has spent $633,458 lobbying against New Jersey’s reform of the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse survivors.
All the funding went to the church-sponsored policy arm, Catholic Conference Policy Group, Inc., which, according to the law firms, had the “sole purpose of lobbying on statute of limitations, legislative issues, and liability issues.”
The firms who commissioned the report — Seeger Weiss LLP, Williams Cedar LLC, Abraham Watkins, and the Simpson Tuegel Law Firm — represent more than 300 clergy abuse survivors.
In New Jersey, the church’s lobbying was in vain. On May 13, Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation that extends the civil statute of limitations for child sexual abuse. Prior to the bill’s passage, people who were sexually victimized as children had until age 20 to seek damages against their abusers. Beginning on Dec. 19, the deadline is age 55.
The bill also opens a two-year window which also begins on Dec. 19 for victims over 55 who were previously barred from a court hearing by the old statute of limitations.
The Catholic Church’s ongoing battle against legislation of this nature wasn’t confined to New Jersey. In eight states in the Northeast, the Church has doled out more than $10.6 million to its lobbying arm to combat statute of limitations expansions and other proposed bills that would expand retroactive protections for survivors of child sexual abuse.
Out in the open
In February, all five archdioceses in New Jersey publicly released lists of clergy members on record as “credibly accused” of sexually abusing children. There were 188 New Jersey priests on the list. Sixty-three of those were part of the Newark Archdiocese, working in Catholic churches in every Hudson County municipality, and were often transferred to a handful of area churches.
Almost all the accused priests with ties to Hudson County never faced trial. A select few with Hudson County ties attempted, sometimes successfully, to re-enter the priesthood in new parishes after being removed from the ministry.
One priest named on the list who had North Bergen ties was John Capparelli. In March of this year, Capparelli was found fatally shot at his home in Henderson, Nevada. According to the New York Times, suspect Derrick M. Decoste was accused on June 6 by Nevada state police of allegedly visiting Capparelli’s home after responding to a classified ad on Craigslist requesting a “male wrestler,” and murdering him shortly thereafter. The communications took place on March 6, and Capparelli’s body was found three days later on March 9. DeCoste is already being held in the Oakland County Jail on unrelated criminal charges, and Henderson police are currently seeking to have him extradited for a trial.
Information the church possessed pertaining to predatory priests, dating back to the 1940s, was kept hidden from the public until this year.
All five dioceses also set up an independent victim’s compensation fund, for survivors who could not seek legal action that enabled them to seek reparations directly from the church, if they signed a nondisclosure agreement.
“The release of names of clergy with credible allegations of sexual abuse of a minor is part of our ongoing commitment to be transparent and help bring healing to the victims and help restore trust in the leadership of the Catholic Church,” Cardinal Joseph Tobin of the Newark Archdiocese said shortly after the release of the list.
Zach Hiner, executive director of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), said that with this “commitment to transparency,” the church would still be able control and process evidence, and keep new accusations out of the eye of the public and the judicial process.
Hiner said that the opening of compensation funds relieves pressure on lawmakers to help survivors seek true justice by reforming the statute of limitations. He told The Hudson Reporter in February: “It’s the statute of limitations that often keeps survivors from coming forward in the first place. In short, these funds allow church officials to control and process the information. This will not prevent future abuse nor help most survivors find the justice they deserve.”
The Northeast portion of the country has been at the forefront of movements to expand protections for survivors of child sexual abuse.
In Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, and Rhode Island, the Catholic Church doled out $10,602,587 to its policy arm over a span of seven years, from 2011-2018, attempting to thwart legislative efforts that would expose child abusers.
- In Pennsylvania, both legislative chambers are seeking to expand the statute of limitations, and update regulations on reporting and confidentiality agreements.
- In New York, church lobbyists failed to thwart the passing of the Child Victims Act, which was signed into law in February.
- In Connecticut, expansions to the statute of limitations sit on the governor’s desk.
- In Massachusetts, expansions to the statute of limitations are being heard by a joint committee and the judiciary branch.
- In Maine, bills expanding the statute of limitations have passed both the House and Senate.
- In Rhode Island, several bills addressing statutes of limitations are being held for further study.
Just about half of the church’s spending was in Pennsylvania, and was concurrent with the release of a grand jury report that provided evidence involving more than 300 priests accused of sexually abusing more than 1,000 child victims in the state.
“This report lays down what we have known all along, that the Catholic Church refuses responsibility for the decades of abuse that took place knowingly under its watch,” Stephen A. Weiss, a founding partner of Seeger Weiss LLP, said. “All survivors should have access to the opportunity to demand reforms from the church and any other institution that has allowed such insidious abuse.”