Catholic cardinal says any new NY law for abuse victims should avoid 'breaking' the church

With the New York state Senate now controlled by Democrats, it is expected to take up a bill that would lower the statute of limitations for abuse victims.
Image: Cardinal Timothy Dolan holds mass on Ash Wednesday at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York on Feb. 10, 2016.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan holds mass on Ash Wednesday at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York on Feb. 10, 2016.Andrew Renneisen / Getty Images file

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By Corky Siemaszko

With the New York state Legislature expected to take up a bill that could enable more victims of sex abuse by priests to sue, Cardinal Timothy Dolan is calling for a measure that avoids "breaking" the Roman Catholic Church.

Dolan, who as archbishop of New York leads more than 2 million Catholics, says he is in favor of a proposed “Child Victims Act” but that such a bill should focus on helping victims.

"The emphasis must be on helping them heal, not breaking government, educational, health, welfare, or religious organizations and institutions," Dolan wrote in a op-ed Tuesday in The Daily News.

To achieve this, the cardinal said the bill should be modeled on an independent program run by the archdiocese of New York and four other dioceses in the state that has already paid over $200 million in compensation to more than 1,000 people.

“The compensation program, which we inaugurated in 2016, works well,” he wrote.

Not only does it ensure “fair and reasonable compensation,” he wrote, it prevents the “real possibility — as has happened elsewhere — of bankrupting both public and private organizations, including churches.”

Dolan’s words came as the church is faced with the likelihood that the state Senate, now in Democratic hands, could join with the state Assembly and governor to pass a Child Victims Act that would do away with statutes of limitations that have prevented some alleged abuse victims from suing the church. The bill is sponsored by State Senator Brad Hoylman and Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, both Manhattan Democrats.

Right now, alleged survivors of abuse cannot file a claim if they are over 23 under New York’s existing statute of limitations, which is among the most restrictive in the country.

The bill also includes a one-year “look-back window” that would allow alleged victims who weren't able to sue in the past to file claims.

Dolan did not explicitly address the window in his op-ed, but he has objected to it in the past.

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“Yes, reservations have been expressed [about] the reliability of claims involving long-past events based on fading memories,” he wrote. “However, our Church’s own experience in abandoning the rigid statute of limitations, although financially expensive, was morally necessary in order to help promote healing and justice for those who deserve it.”

Advocates for Catholic sex abuse survivors responded warily, noting that the cardinal did not specifically endorse the version of the bill championed by state Sen. Brad Hoylman, which includes the look-back window.

"No one should be fooled by Cardinal Dolan’s sudden recognition that passing the Child Victims Act (CVA), the vehicle for delivering that justice, is a ‘moral necessity,’" Rosenthal said in an email to NBC News. "Cardinal Dolan knows well that the true path to justice for adult survivors lies in the lookback window, in addition to extending the criminal and civil statute of limitations."

Advocates also said that Dolan's emphasis of the bill's broad coverage of a range of organizations that serve minors is a way of ensuring the proposal doesn't pass.

“He knows that’s a poison pill,” said David Clohessy of the Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). “It’s like saying I’m in favor of increasing food stamps but let’s have food stamps for everybody. He knows that will kill it. It’s a very shrewd way of seeming to support a window but including a way to guarantee its failure.”

“This is not a change of heart. This is typical Dolan,” Clohessy added. “He doesn’t support a window, he would rather the church handle this internally by paying money and not revealing secrets. That is what they are most afraid of.”

Coalition members demonstrate in support of the Child Victims Act at the New York State Capitol in Albany on June 21, 2017.Hans Pennink / AP file

Brian Toale, who said he was abused as a child by Catholic priests and lay faculty on Long Island, agreed.

“A process that shields institutions from full liability, such as the one Cardinal Dolan suggests, will not offer a practical or moral solution,” he said.

Toale also objected to some of Dolan’s language in the op-ed.

“For Cardinal Dolan to suggest that children who were abused, whether it be at church or a school, are looking for money and to break religious organizations and institutions is not just ludicrous, it's harmful," he said.

“Any organizational leader who oversaw the breaking of countless souls, the trust of its flock, and the bodies of children should not assume he knows what survivors want,” Toale said.

Dennis Poust, chief spokesman of the New York State Catholic Conference, told NBC News that Dolan was “referring to legislation, not the survivors.”

“In his op-ed, Cardinal Dolan is suggesting that there is a better way forward — a Child Victims Act that benefits all child victims and enables them to be compensated for past abuse in a way that avoids costly, time-consuming litigation,” Poust said in an email. “He points to programs initiated by the Catholic dioceses throughout New York State administered by Kenneth Feinberg that have compensated survivors with time-barred claims as one potential model the state could look at.”

Pressed on whether Dolan is softening on the one-year look-back window, Poust replied, “It’s fair to say that the cardinal is supporting a version of the Child Victims Act that is victim-centered and would include retroactivity for time barred-claims for all survivors.”

Hoylman said he appreciated “the fact that the cardinal is looking forward to working with legislators” but said the “window is nonnegotiable as far as I’m concerned.”

“It is the core of what the Child Victim Act is all about,” said Hoylman. “The Republican Senate had blocked consideration for over a decade and we have a new Democratic majority with a chance to really improve the lives of survivors who have been voiceless in Albany because of partisanship. This is a momentous opportunity for survivors and their families and we are not going to negotiate away their chance at justice.”

Dolan has called the window “toxic” to the Catholic Church and personally pressed New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who backs the CVA, to cut it out of the bill.

But in November, The Daily News reported that the church was “open” to looking at some kind of provision that would allow victims barred from suing under the statutes of limitations to seek justice.

This was ahead of the elections in which the Democrats took control of the legislature — and three months after a bombshell report out of Pennsylvania that named 301 priests as sexual predators and revealed that just two were charged with crimes because of that state’s strict statute of limitations laws.