You probably read "Suing the Church," an essay in the most recent issue of First Things in which Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver argues against attempts to suspend the statute of limitation in lawsuits against churches. Now a friend from Denver, Francis X. Maier, emails to say that last week the Colorado legislature let die House Bill 1090, which would have allowed endless civil actions against religious institutions.
Maier notes that victims' groups and plaintiffs' attorneys had backed the proposed legislation, which would have allowed time-barred civil lawsuits to go forward. Colorado's three Catholic bishops opposed it. The bishops were joined by the Greek Orthodox metropolis of Denver and a number of evangelical Protestant leadersand later by insurance companies, the municipal league, and the counties. The bishops also had well-organized, grassroots support from the statewide Catholic community: Colorado lawmakers received thousands of calls, emails, and letters opposing HB 1090 and related proposals.
The bishops stressed that statutes of limitation make good legal sense. They also argued that the motives behind suspending them were prejudicial against Catholics and their institutions. But two other arguments had a special impact on the wider public.
First, the evidence shows that the sexual abuse of minors is a broadly distributed social problem. Sexual abuse of minors among educators in public schools is at leastprobably moreprevalent as the same problem in Catholic settings. Despite this, public institutions enjoy immunity from lawsuits and crippling financial damages. Noting that two-thirds of the children from practicing Catholic families in Colorado attend public schools, the state's bishops argued that since sexual abuse of a minor is such a grievous crime, all institutions, both public and private, should be subject to the same equally tough standards and penalties.
Second, the bishops argued that "retroactive liability" is inherently unjust. It amounts to changing the rules after the fact. Diocesan insurance typically covers only a small portion of settlement costs. The people who end up paying for massive sex-abuse damages are ordinary, innocent Catholic laypeople and families who had no part in events twenty-five to sixty years ago. In effect, retroactive civil lawsuits are not only aggressive in their financial goals; they also create a whole new class of victims in the name of justice for other victims.
Much of the damage inflicted on the American Church by lawsuits charging abusive priests was overdue and well deserved. But the latest round of legislative efforts to change the law retroactively is an open attempt by trial lawyers to cash in on the vaguest and least defensible charges. It has been turned back, for now, in Colorado, but it is still advancing in other states, and it needs to be halted.
Last fall, in "The Shame of Darfur," Allen Hertzke called on America's religious communities to awaken to the genocide happening in western Sudan. The essay prompted strong letters to the editor from such activists as Chuck Colson and Michael Horowitz, for Hertzke pulled no punchesand he named figures he thought could be doing more, among them Gary Bauer.
It was thus significant that on Friday Bauer and his organization American Values called on his friends and supporters to urge the U.S. government and the United Nations to support intervention in the region. Bauer writes:
I was encouraged last week to learn of the partial peace agreement between the government of Sudan and a main rebel group representing the people of Sudan's Darfur region. After two years, and six rounds of negotiations, the two sides finally signed a deal that may be the first step to ending the violence in which as many as 400,000 people have been killed and at least 3 million left homeless and on the verge of starvation. Despite the breakthrough, I remain skeptical about the prospects for peace.
Many of you may not be fully aware of what is going on in Darfur, so here's a brief overview. Early in 2005, President Bush helped negotiate a peace agreement between northern and southern Sudan, ending Africa's longest-running civil war. While significant, that agreement didn't end the government-sponsored genocide taking place in Sudan's western region of Darfur, where bands of men on horseback are responsible for the raping, killing, torture, mutilation, and displacement of millions of people. Things seemed to improve last year, when the government promised to rein in its death squads. But the promise proved hollow, and the regime stepped up its killing machine, expanding attacks to include relief workers trying to feed and aid refugees. The UN Food Agency recently announced it would cut food rations in half for 3 million refugees due to attacks on workers and insufficient funding. Meanwhile, the government of Chad is threatening to expel the 200,000 Darfur refugees who have spilled over the border to seek refuge.
President Bush has led the way in addressing the situation in Darfur. Besides being the only world leader willing to stand up and call the bloodbath in Darfur by its rightful name, genocide, he has repeatedly stated that the United States would play a pivotal role in helping exchange an outgunned African Union Army for a well-trained United Nations force of peacekeepers. On Monday, Bush announced that Condoleezza Rice would be dispatched to press the UN to accelerate the transition. As usual, the UN is dragging its feet and announced yesterday that deployment of a UN force will take 6 months. This despite the fact that, by the UN's own estimates, the death toll may soon reach 100,000 a month.
American Values supports the immediate intervention of a UN peacekeeping force in Darfur, and we encourage the president and Congress to do everything possible to keep Sudan accountable to the peace agreement it signed.
Jaroslav Pelikan died on Saturday at age eighty-two. The funeral is Wednesday morning at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary in Crestwood, New York, beginning at nine o'clock. Jaroslav Pelikan was in the estimation of many the twentieth century's most distinguished historian of Christianity. He taught at Yale from 1962 to 1996 and was the immediate past president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. A pastor and the son of a pastor of the Lutheran ChurchMissouri Synod, Pelikan entered into communion with the Orthodox Church in 1998.
In one of the first issues of First Things, David Lotz wrote "The Achievement of Jaroslav Pelikan," summarizing Pelikan's magisterial five-volume history of the Christian Tradition. A further appreciation of Pelikan's person and achievementsby Robert Louis Wilken, his student and friendwill appear in a forthcoming issue of First Things. May choirs of angels welcome Jaroslav Pelikan home.
In addition to which:
Many contemporary church buildings, Catholic and Protestant, are really auditoriums designed for entertainment and the celebration of our amazing selves. It has not always been so, and a change for the better does not necessarily mean going back to whatever "traditional" design one may prefer. These are the questions engaged in a lively article by architectural critic Catesby Leigh in "Sacred Spaces and Other Places." It is among the scintillating articles in the May issue of First Things. Isn't it time you subscribed?