Ronnie Polaneczky: Rigali's support of sex-abuse bill would be golden

Cardinal Justin Rigali has been largely mum on sex-abuse bill in the state House.
Cardinal Justin Rigali has been largely mum on sex-abuse bill in the state House.
Posted: April 26, 2011

WHEN SOMEONE hits a 50th anniversary, I believe, tradition calls for a gift of gold.

Suffice to say I will not be presenting Cardinal Justin Rigali with anything of karat weight in recognition of the 50th anniversary, yesterday, of his ordination as a Roman Catholic priest. Rigali celebrated his achievement with a noontime Mass in his own honor at the Cathedral Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul.

I think a more profound way to mark the event would have been for Rigali to throw his weight behind PA House Bill 878. It would give victims of past child sex abuse a two-year window to bring civil charges against perps who've escaped criminal prosecution because the statute of limitations lapsed on their crimes.

I've written in this column before about HB 878, and I won't let up until the bill wakes from slumber in the House Judiciary Committee, whose chairman, Harrisburg-area state Rep. Ron Marsico, is pretending it doesn't exist.

"He has not responded to our request to move the bill," says state Rep. Mike McGeehan, of Northeast Phladelphia, who introduced it. "We're getting lots of emails and support from constituents. But we've heard nothing from the chairman's office."

(Marsico's spokeswoman, Autumn Southard, said she didn't know when the bill might be scheduled for a hearing.)

McGeehan is convinced that HB 878 would get traction in an eye blink if Rigali, who heads the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, merely requested it.

The conference, the politically powerful public-affairs arm of the state's dioceses, blocked a similar bill in 2008. Its opponents were so hellbent on portraying the bill as anti-Catholic, they were blind to how it could bring justice to all victims - not just Catholic ones - of childhood sex abuse.

The dismissiveness was powerful. The bill died in committee, its death proof of Rigali's juice.

"There's no question" 878 would get a hearing, McGeehan says, if the cardinal endorsed it. And then Catholic legislators and Catholic Pennsylvanians in general would get behind it, too.

"These are people of deep faith, with a strong connection with their local parish. They don't want to see that harmed" if the cardinal implies the bill would do so, says McGeehan. "The cultural and spiritual experience of being Catholic is the core of who they are.

"But there are also Catholics who have been betrayed by the church. You have to put their interests ahead of your own memories and life experience. It is the just thing to do."

Which brings us back to Rigali, who promised sweeping changes after the 2005 grand-jury investigation into sex abuse in the Philadelphia Archdiocese.

Since then, of course, we've seen the release of a second grand-jury report into the mishandling of sex-abuse allegations by the Archdiocese. With it has come a jaw-dropping disbelief that the Archdiocese, under Rigali's leadership, is still - still - getting it wrong on something as basic as the protection of children.

That's a terrible stain on a man's legacy.

I have to think that Rigali, who just turned 76, is pondering the meaning of his life the way many ambitious men do as their time on earth is winding down.

And I have to think he wants to be remembered more for the good things he did than for the good things he should have done.

Endorsing HB 878 wouldn't be just a good thing. Given his culpability in the scandal, it would also be a courageous thing, the kind that could alter the opinion of one of his fiercest critics.

That would be one Sister Maureen Paul Turlish, the outspoken victims' advocate with Voice of the Faithful, the national Catholic reform group.

"I don't trust Cardinal Rigali," says Turlish, for whom today marks the ninth anniversary of the first protest she took part in to oppose the church's coverup of the sex scandal. "His 'zero tolerance' policy [of sex abuse] does not exist. The second grand-jury report proves it."

What would revise her opinion, she says, would be Rigali's unconditional support of not just HB 878 but also HB 832, introduced by state Rep. Louise Williams Bishop, of Philadelphia, which would abolish altogether the statute of limitations on criminal and civil lawsuits for child sex-abuse cases going forward.

"He should also tell his pastors and priests to pledge their support, right from the pulpit during Mass," she says, paraphrasing from an article she wrote called "Philadelphia: Where is the Outrage?" published Thursday in the National Catholic Reporter. "They should tell parishioners to work to get the bills passed."

Think of the message it would send, she says: that all children who have been sexually abused deserve a shot at justice - no matter who perpetrated the abuse, or when.

And whether a victim or abuser is Catholic or not.

Now that would be golden.

Email polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns:

www.philly.com/Ronnie. Read Ronnie's blog at www.philly.com/RonnieBlog.

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