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The Legislative War on the Church Continues in Connecticut

By Anne Hendershott

Despite the fact that under current Connecticut law, sexual abuse victims have 30 years past their 18th birthday to file a lawsuit, a new bill introduced in Connecticut’s legislature will completely remove the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse cases.  Connecticut bishops have responded by warning parishioners that the proposed change to the law will put “all Church institutions, including your parish at risk.”

And, although there is precedence for removing the statute of limitations in cases of allegations of priestly abuse (when California lawmakers removed their state’s statute of limitations, more than 800 lawsuits were filed against the Church in a single year), this latest legislative initiative follows an attempted Catholic Church takeover last March when State Senator Andrew J. McDonald and State Representative Michael Lawlor, both Democrats, introduced Bill 1098.  If it had passed, this CT bill would have allowed the state of Connecticut to control individual parishes’ governance and financial affairs—relegating the pastors and bishops to an advisory role in their own parishes.

And, although Bridgeport Diocese Bishop Lori was successful in mobilizing parishioners to lobby the lawmakers to withdraw the controversial bill just a week after they proposed it, it is likely that the attempt to pass this type of legislation will continue in Connecticut and elsewhere—not because of a perceived need by most Catholics for state oversight, but rather because there are so many within the Church who can gain so much by keeping this issue alive.

Indeed, it is clear that in the attempted state takeover of the Catholic Church, the real force behind this bill was a small but well-organized group of Catholics—unhappy with Church teachings on moral and governance issues—attempting to enlist the state as a partner in radically transforming the Church from within.

To understand the real story behind the proposed legislation, one only has to look closely at some of those promoting the state takeover.  Fairfield University Catholic Studies Professor Paul Lakeland, a former Jesuit priest, has been on the front lines in leading the charge for the legislation.  As a spokesman for the bill, Lakeland has long lobbied for an end to what he calls the “structural oppression of the laity” by the clergy. Lakeland is a frequent presenter at conferences sponsored by organizations like Voice of the Faithful and CORPUS, which dissent from magisterial teachings.

Lakeland has been a longtime critic of the Catholic Church.  At a recent Annual Meeting for CORPUS, an organization of former priests—mostly married—who are still angry over the Church’s priestly celibacy requirement, Lakeland promised to “help our sisters and brothers exercise their baptismal priesthood.”  Claiming that his newest book identifies the task of the laity as working “to build a non-clerical church,”  Lakeland’s hour long speech (available as an audio file on the CORPUS website) is replete with his oft-used phrases including his stated desire to “overcome the lay-clerical division” and address the “structural oppression of the laity” within the Catholic Church.

Criticism of the privileged status of priests and bishops in leading the faithful is at the basis of the Connecticut legislation.  Marginalizing the bishops’ teaching authority in favor of dissenting theologians and removing the distinction between the ordained and the followers are the real goals of organizations like CORPUS and Voice of the Faithful.  Even the role of the deacon in the Catholic Church has come in for criticism by Lakeland.  In his CORPUS speech he scathingly referred to the “monster species” of the deacon.

To grasp the origins of the Connecticut legislative attacks on the Church, it is important to understand the genesis of Voice of the Faithful and some of its angriest members.  Capitalizing on a “crisis” in the state when Fr. Jude Fay, a now deceased Darien priest, was convicted of stealing more than 1.4 million in parishioner donations to lead a luxurious lifestyle with his gay partner, Voice of the Faithful’s Bridgeport, CT chapter created a proposal which advanced the idea of open elections of bishops, priests, and finance councils, and the ownership of church property by the people of the parish.  The VOTF document supported its proposals with historical notations and argued that this was the model of the early Church.

While we cannot claim that the Connecticut VOTF members had a hand in writing the actual legislation that was promoted in the state, it must be acknowledged that many of the tenets in the now-withdrawn Connecticut bill mirror those promoted by VOTF’s Bridgeport affiliate on their website.

And, there was a willing partner from the state—eager to diminish the authority of the Catholic Church.  Democratic State Senator McDonald and Democratic State Representative Lawler, sponsors of the Church takeover bill, are both openly gay men and outspoken same-sex marriage advocates.  Both have been tireless in their efforts to usher in gay marriage, and both have been critical of the Catholic Church’s opposition to laws dismantling the current definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

Bishop Lori told a reporter for a local newspaper that he believed that the proposed Church governance bill was “an effort to silence the Church on important issues of the day—especially with regard to marriage.”  This is most likely true as the governance bill was proposed the day before the same-sex marriage bill was to be heard.

The attacks on the Church will continue. But, courageous bishops like Bishop Lori are rising to the challenge.  Unfortunately, there is little help from the Catholic colleges and universities. While parishioners have mobilized to fight the state takeover, Catholic college professors like Paul Lakeland are fighting for the other side.  And, for organizations like Voice of the Faithful, which desire that the Church become a democratic institution, there will continue to be an attempt to enlist the state as a partner in trying to create an egalitarian Church that reflects the will of the people rather than that of the Magisterium.

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