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Victims' Advocates Criticize Moves by California Bishops

Dec 6, 2002 | The Boston Globe California's Roman Catholic bishops are wrongly attempting to blame victims of sexual abuse for the church's financial problems, advocates for the victims said yesterday.

At a news conference outside the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles, the advocates also called on Cardinal Roger M. Mahony to scrap his plans to challenge a new state law that may allow filing of hundreds of new lawsuits against the church.

The law temporarily suspends the statute of limitations on many old claims involving sexual molestation by priests. The church made little effort to oppose the measure as it moved through the California Legislature, but the Los Angeles Archdiocese, backed by other bishops in the state, said this week it now intends to challenge the law.

''Rather than continue to hurt victims by saying they're going to fight the law, we ask them to submit to the law like every other American citizen has and support the victims in this process of healing,'' said Mary Grant, Southern California regional director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the archdiocese, denied that the church was harming victims. The plan to fight the new law is solely a matter of fairness, he said.

''If you have allegations that come forward that are 40 or 50 or 30 years old, who was around? What witnesses are available to ascertain the truth of those allegations? We're appealing to fundamental fairness. This isn't re-victimization,'' Tamberg said.

Sunday, the state's bishops plan to have a letter read to parishioners across California that warns of potentially dire financial implications to the church from the new lawsuits.

In the letter, the bishops reaffirm their commitment to respond to the ''legitimate claims'' of sexual abuse victims. But, they say, ''the Catholic church has been falsely portrayed as a large corporation with deep pockets.''

Most church assets belong to the people of individual parishes, schools, and church charities, the letter says. ''They are not devoted to the accumulation of wealth but to education, worship, and sacraments: to the poor and other works of charity.''

Advocates for the victims said they were angered by the tone of the letter. They promised to distribute an alternative letter Sunday in some parishes in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

They also asked Catholics to download the alternative letter for themselves at the Web site www.survivorsnetwork.org, and to distribute it at their own parishes.

Lee Bashforth, leader of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the tone of the bishops' letter is ''a clear signal to everyone that they still don't get it.''

He continued: ''This is not about lawsuits and fighting statutes of limitations and other legal hardball tactics they've used before. This is about protecting children and seeking justice.''

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