Laura Benshoff covers the suburbs for WHYY, 91 FM. Originally from Raleigh, N.C., Laura hasn't had a southern accent in years. She moved to Montreal for college before landing in Philadelphia in 2012.
Parishioners pray the Rosary at Holy Infancy Roman Catholic in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania after mass on Tuesday, August 14, 2018, the same day, Pennsylvania Attorney General released his two-year grand jury investigation into widespread sexual abuse and cover-up within six Catholic dioceses across the state. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)
The Catholic Church spent more on lobbying efforts in Pennsylvania than in seven other northeastern U.S. states combined, according to a recent report covering 2011-2018.
The lawfirms behind the report — Williams Cedar, Seeger Weiss LLP, Abraham Watkins, and the Simpson Tuegel Law Firm — represent a total of more than 300 survivors of sexual abuse across the country.
Under Pennsylvania’s reporting requirements, lobbyists don’t have to link their work to specific legislation, just broad topics.
Data available through the Pennsylvania Department of State lobbying directory, though, shows an uptick in Catholic Church lobbying in 2017 and 2018, years that saw heated debate over proposals to reduce statute of limitations protections for alleged abusers.
Last August, a sweeping grand jury report resulted in renewed calls for “window legislation,” which would temporarily allow alleged victims of sexual abuse to file claims retroactively. A bill passed the State House but stalled in the State Senate last year.
“We really wanted to commission this [report] and release it, really partly out of a sense of frustration with the process,” said attorney Gerald Williams, a partner at Williams Cedar.
Out of $10.6 million spent in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic during the time period reviewed, church officials laid out more than half in Pennsylvania, according to numbers the report authors pulled from public disclosure reports.
State totals 2011 – 2018
Pennsylvania – $5,322,579
New York – $2,912,772
Connecticut – $875,261
New Jersey – $633,458
Massachusetts – $537,551
New Hampshire – $134,345
Maine – $124,260
Rhode Island – $61,961
Total lobbying expenses for all special interest groups in Pennsylvania can top $500 million annually.
A year-by-year breakdown of spending by the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, the Church’s advocacy arm, shows peaks in 2012, 2017 and 2018, topping $700,000 each of those years.
A spokesperson for the group said it lobbies on behalf of many issues of interest to Catholics including homelessness, education, and pro-life efforts.
“We do not have a breakdown of costs, but our lobbying budget funds this broad effort,” said Communications Director Al Gnoza.
In other states, such as New York, the report draws a clearer connection between lobbying and statute of limitations legislation: “The Church spent nearly $3 million on lobbying in New York, with 80 percent of that spending – $2,329,071 – going to a Church-sponsored policy arm called the Catholic Conference Policy Group, Inc.” That group has “the sole mission of lobbying on ‘statute of limitations, legislative issues, and liability issues,'” according to the report.
Church supporters have questioned the motives of law firms who stand to gain from more litigation.
Meanwhile, victims of sexual abuse criticize the church for an effort they view as excessive and hypocritical.
“The Catholic Conference hired 39 lobbyists to work 50 senators and made sure our bill failed,” he said. “They’re spending millions and millions, shutting down victims which they have damaged, they have destroyed.”
After the most recent reform package fizzled, Rozzi and Rep. Jim Gregory, (R-Blair), introduced a pair of proposals earlier this year. They would end the statute-of-limitations for criminal sexual abuse proceedings in the future, and modify the state constitution to allow victims to make retroactive claims.
WHYY is the leading public media station serving the Philadelphia region, including Delaware, South Jersey and Pennsylvania. This story originally appeared on WHYY.org.