BOSTON — The Roman Catholic Church has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years lobbying in Massachusetts, and a new report suggests the effort was aimed at derailing proposals to extend the statute of limitations for survivors of clergy sexual abuse.
The report, commissioned by several law firms that represent victims of clergy abuse, found the church has spent more than $10.6 million collectively on lobbying in several northeast states since 2011, much of it aimed at defeating proposed legislation to help victims of rape or sexual assault pursue criminal or civil charges against priests.
Pennsylvania had the most lobbying expenditures, about $5.3 million, followed by New York, where the church spent $2.9 million, the report noted.
"The church's lobbying activities stand in stark contrast to its public statements about providing healing and closure to survivors," its authors wrote.
In Massachusetts, the church has spent $537,551 since 2011, according to the report, a figure reflected in lobbying disclosures filed with the secretary of state.
Advocates for victims of clergy abuse say the lobbying shows the church is trying to lessen the blow of ongoing claims by victims.
"I'm really not surprised by the claims in the report," said Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston lawyer who has represented hundreds of clergy sexual abuse victims. "The Catholic church and other institutions have paid millions upon millions of dollars over the years to oppose laws aimed at allowing victims of abuse to obtain justice."
'Not in Massachusetts'
But Jim Driscoll, executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the church's lobbying arm, called the report "inaccurate and misleading."
Driscoll pointed out that his organization lobbies Beacon Hill on many issues — such as proposals to expand abortion access or allow physician-assisted suicide — on its own and through a private firm it contracts with, Boston-based Rasky Partners Inc. But neither the conference or the firm are trying to block efforts to toughen child sexual abuse laws, he said.
"This report is completely false," he said. "We do lobbying on a number of issues, but we're not actively opposing statute-of-limitation bills that are currently filed in this session."
Driscoll said the conference supported legislation in 2014 that extended the statute of limitations on civil cases of sexual abuse by 32 years, to age 53. Previously, the claims ran out when an accuser turned 21.
Still, proposals to extend the statute of limitations on criminal sexual abuse cases have languished year after year in legislative committees on Beacon Hill amid a lack of support. The current limit is 27 years after the sexual abuse occurred, unless there is physical or corroborating evidence to back the claims.
Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, has filed a bill the past three legislative sessions — roughly six years — to do away with the statute of limitations on sexual abuse cases involving victims under the age of 18. Despite increasing support among lawmakers, she said the bill hasn't come up for a vote in either the state Senate or House of Representatives.
"If this money is going to defend the church, it's extremely troubling," said Lovely, a childhood victim of sexual abuse by a relative. "It would be better spent helping victims."
Lovely said lifting the statute of limitations is critical because many victims of child rape and sexual assault don't remember the abuse until many years later.
A similar proposal, filed by Sen. Diana DiZoglio, D-Methuen, on behalf of Bassam Haddad, a North Andover resident and clergy abuse victim, has also been refiled year after year with little progress.
The report commissioned by law firms in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Texas is titled "Church Influencing State: How the Catholic Church Spent Millions Against Survivors of Clergy Abuse." It found that nearly $3 million was spent by the church fighting New York’s recently passed Child Victims Act, which gives all adults who were sexually abused as children a one-year window to bring forth claims.
The bill, signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in February, gives adults until age 55 to pursue legal action against their childhood abusers. The previous limit was age 23.
In New Jersey, the church spent at least $633,458 to defeat a bill allowing child victims to sue until they turn 55 or within seven years of their "first realization" that the abuse caused them harm. The previous limit was two years. Despite those efforts, Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, signed the bill into law in May.
History of scandals
The Catholic church remains mired in scandals over rape and sexual abuse claims against priests that date back decades, as well as allegations that the church tried to cover up the abuse.
Massachusetts was once the epicenter of those scandals following a Boston Globe investigation that uncovered more than 500 victims of sexual abuse by about 150 Catholic priests. The scandal led to the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law, head of the Boston Archdiocese, amid revelations that for years he had overlooked charges of sexual misconduct by priests.
More recently, the scandal has shifted to other states, including Pennsylvania, where a grand jury produced a report in August that said about 300 Roman Catholic priests had abused children at six of the state's eight dioceses over seven decades, as the church hierarchy covered it up. The sex abuse claims are part of an ongoing FBI investigation.
The scandals have also led to the church paying millions of dollars to settle lawsuits.
In February, the Vatican held a sex abuse prevention summit where Pope Francis urged senior church leaders to "punish predators and keep children safe."
But Garabedian said a series of new papal laws on reporting sexual abuse will do little to help victims.
"History has taught us that the Vatican, with its self-proclaimed laws, is incapable of protecting innocent children from being sexually abused," he said.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for the North of Boston Media Group. Email him at email@example.com.
Catholic Church lobbying spending by state (2011-2018)
* Pennsylvania, $5.32 million
* New York, $2.91 million
* Connecticut, $875,261
* New Jersey, $633,458
* Massachusetts, $537,551
* New Hampshire, $134,345
* Rhode Island, $124,260
Source: "Church Influencing State" report.