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Catholic Clout is Eroded by Scandals

By Michael Powell Washington Post Staff Writer


NEW YORK -- The clergy sex abuse scandals have diminished the once formidable power of the Roman Catholic Church in statehouses throughout the Northeast, the most heavily Catholic region in the nation. Legislators who in years past would be deferential to church power are proposing and passing laws extending civil and criminal statutes of limitations on sex abuse cases, and requiring that priests report any allegations of child abuse to the police.

The scandal has muted the church's voice on a range of issues, conservative and liberal, from opposing gay marriage and pushing for parental consent for teenagers seeking abortions, to raising the minimum wage.

"It's clear to me that the church is defensive and reeling," said Thomas M. Finneran, the Democratic speaker of the Massachusetts House. A self-described observant Catholic, Finneran two months ago signed off on a bill extending the statute of limitations for suing priests; in the past he had allowed such bills to expire in committee.

"We had an informed-consent bill on abortion recently where the church's voice might have been persuasive," Finneran added, "but their influence with people of the faith has been hurt." In New Jersey, two Catholic legislators have proposed stripping churches of charitable tax status if child abusers are hired or retained. In Connecticut, legislators recently doubled the civil statute of limitations for suing for childhood sex abuse. And in New York, a Catholic legislator last week gained passage of a law forcing church officials to report non-family child abuse allegations directly to the police.

"The church opposed this in the past but they are in no position to take a position this year," said Assemblyman John J. McEneny (D), the bill's sponsor. "Let's face it, they've lost the moral ground in their own parishes, and you've got a lot more legislative free agents as a result." There are an estimated 63 million Catholics in the United States, and the greatest concentration is found in the Northeast. Rhode Island is 63 percent Catholic, the highest proportion in the nation. Massachusetts is in second place at 47 percent. In New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, percentages range from 40 to 45 percent.

Church officials in this region are accustomed to gaining respectful hearings in statehouses, and exerting broad influence.

"They are very active and influential on issues that affect them," said Assemblywoman Deborah J. Glick, who represents Lower Manhattan and has clashed fiercely with the church on several issues. "They can be very tough on legislators who have large Catholic districts."

Now the church's troubles have emboldened those who oppose traditional church positions on abortion and birth control. Glick acknowledges that she and other New York liberals took advantage of a distracted church and recently passed a bill forcing hospitals affiliated with the church to offer health insurance polices that include prescription birth control.

And in Massachusetts, liberal Democrats beat back what Finneran termed a "plain vanilla" proposal to require "informed consent" for every woman seeking an abortion. The proposal would have required doctors to notify a woman of her right to review scientific information on fetal development and abortion alternatives.

"In the past," Finneran said, "the church's voice might have made a difference."

"We've seen an erosion of the church's moral authority in statehouses," said William Donohue, president of the Catholic League of America, a 300,000-member group dedicated to the preservation of traditional Catholic values. "When [New York] Cardinal Egan went to Albany to address the question of health insurance bills, every question from reporters was about the sex scandals."

Still, the same liberals who oppose Catholic positions on abortion and birth control often link arms with the church on such issues as raising the minimum wage and combating proposed budget cuts to child care and homeless programs. (The church's social service arm, Catholic Charities, is the largest private social service organization in the nation.)

In New York, the church played a major role in softening tough welfare reform rules, and fighting to retain rent control for poor tenants. In Massachusetts, it lobbied hard for assistance to homeless families. On such issues, liberals now lament a weakened church.

"You would immediately go to the church on social justice and labor issues in the past but they no longer have the same credibility," said Richard Schrader, a Democratic consultant in New York. "Their unassailable moral voice has been deeply diminished."

Dennis Poust of the New York State Catholic Conference disputes this. "The scandals have not had a profound impact," he said. "We had a major defeat with the [health insurance] bill, but we probably were going to lose that anyway."

As Poust suggests, church political clout was on the wane in the Northeast even before the recent scandals. The Irish, Italian, German and Polish immigrants who gave flesh to church power are nearly a century into their American assimilation. Their more secularized children and grandchildren no longer pay the same attention to church injunctions.

Polls in Massachusetts and Connecticut, for instance, consistently show that significant numbers of church-going Catholic voters nonetheless favor divorce, birth control and abortion rights. "It's been a long time since anyone could run for office in the Northeast as a hit-the-knees, the-church-is-my-rock-and-salvation Catholic," said Michael Goldman, a Democratic consultant in Massachusetts.

If anything, the current anger of Catholics at their church has gotten the attention of legislators who once were dependable votes on church issues.

Political consultant Norman Adler recently pulled together a group of constituents for two fairly conservative assemblymen on suburban Long Island. "The Catholic voters were the most outspoken," he said. "We wanted to know their reaction to the sex abuse scandal and basically it was: 'Hang 'em high.'" A week later, the two assemblymen signed on as co-sponsors of the bill forcing clergy to report sex abuse allegations to the police.

Still, lobbyists for the Roman Catholic Church are renowned for their legislative dexterity. They have taken a stance of studious neutrality on proposals this year to extend statutes of limitations, after opposing and bottling up similar bills in past years.

And the lobbyists are capable of rallying the faithful and waging vigorous and successful battles, as they did when legislators in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York attempted to mandate that priests disclose sex abuse allegations heard in the confessional.

Catholic doctrine holds that priests are forbidden to reveal information told to them under the seal of confession.

Early in the morning on May 3, Connecticut's House passed a bill by a vote of 142-2 that would have required priests to disclose confessional secrets. That weekend, priests all over the state spoke against the proposal from the pulpit and a major lobbying firm, Updike, Kelly & Spellacy, and the Knights of Columbus worked the phones to legislators. The Catholic Conference put out alerts on its Web site, and sent newsletters to 300 parishes, warning parishioners of an "anti-religious sentiment" and urging them to call their state senators.

Rep. Michael Lawlor (D), chairman of the Judiciary Committee and sponsor of the confessional reporting bill, laughs a bit gingerly at the recollection of that weekend. "I was getting a lot of calls from very angry people," he said.

The next week, the state Senate overwhelmingly voted down the proposal and given a second chance, the House reversed itself in no less overwhelming numbers.

The reaction was more emphatic in Rhode Island, where nearly two-thirds of its residents are Catholic. When a Catholic state representative proposed breaking the seal of the confessional, he found himself a pi˝˝ata for drive-time radio jocks.

And his colleagues accused him of invading a sacred and private religious space.

"Man, I got chastised by constituents and ripped apart on radio," said Rep. Robert Lowe of Rhode Island. "There's a strong feeling by a lot of Catholics here that they want to just fluff this under the carpet and not talk about it."

That is not the mood in Massachusetts, epicenter of the church scandal because of the role of Cardinal Bernard Law in transferring priests with records of abuse from parish to parish, a role only documented when church correspondence was unsealed by a judge. More than anywhere in the nation, the church's legislative fortunes here have darkened.

Cardinal Law traditionally attends the governor's state-of-the state address, and finds himself surrounded by a press of legislators seeking a handshake. But this year, when he stepped into the chambers to listen to Gov. Jane Swift, he found himself ostracized.

"Usually, he's a celebrity but everyone was backing away from him this year," said Massachusetts state Rep. Francis L. Marini, the Republican minority leader. "It's unfortunate for him . . ." Marini caught himself and finished: "But it's a lot more unfortunate for the people who used to be able to rely on the power of the church to guide them on moral issues."