Monday, June 7, 2010

Did Catholic lobbyists play hardball?

Did Catholic lobbyists play hardball?
May 7, 2010 Milwaukee News
Did a Catholic state senator oppose a bill that would have opened the door to more lawsuits against priests accused of sexual abuse because he feared church officials would cut him off from communion? That’s the question a victims’ group is asking and Wisconsin’s catholic lobby group is calling “ridiculous.”

The group, the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, employs three lobbyists, according to the state Government Accountability Board. Wisconsin bishops, including Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki, serve on its board of directors.

In 2004, the state Legislature increased the age limit for victims of childhood sexual abuse to sue their abuser from 21 years old to 35 (meaning those over the age of 35 could not sue for sexual abuse suffered as a child). Legislation debated in the state Senate and Assembly this year would have made it possible for victims of any age to sue their past abusers.

In a position paper, the Conference opposes the legislation. “In removing all time limits for future cases and in allowing for suits surrounding abuse that occurred decades ago, these bills go too far,” it says. “Parishioners and those served by (the) churches and non-profit groups of today are not responsible for any mistakes made dealing with child abusers decades ago. But they will suffer if a large damage award devastates their church or agency.”

In a Thursday story, Marie Rohde, who reported for NewsBuzz on the scandal surrounding Father Lawrence Murphy, a St. Francis priest accused of abusing about 200 deaf boys, writes that the victims’ group, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), is claiming that the threatened state senator was Jim Sullivan (D-Wauwatosa).

A lobbyist not registered as working for the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, Joseph Strohl, a Democrat and former Senate leader, wrote an email SNAP is circulating, the story says, suggesting Sullivan fears losing his communion rights unless he opposes the statute of limitations bill.

In the email, Strohl writes that he talked to Sullivan about the bill. Last session, he adds, Sullivan helped to kill similar legislation. Then, according to the story, comes the controversial part: “As (Sullivan) said, ‘he still takes communion every Sunday’ and wants to be able to keep doing that.”

Strohl told Rohde he didn’t remember what Sullivan meant by the comment. At the time, Strohl was registered as a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Association for Justice, a group representing trial lawyers. WAJ didn’t register a formal opinion on the either the Assembly or the Senate version of the legislation.

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