Cardinal Timothy Dolan, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and archbishop of New York, urged Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers Monday to reject pending bills to codify abortion rights and open a window for victims of child sex abuse to sue for old incidents.
Joined by other Catholic bishops from around New York, Dolan said they were "bolstered" by Cuomo's assurances Monday that following last year's legalization of gay marriage, which they opposed, he'll protect their religious freedom not to sanction such marriages. "We were worried that perhaps the law might force us to violate our conscience," he said.
New York has about 7.3 million Catholics, about 40 percent of the state's population, said Dennis Poust, spokesman for the New York Catholic Conference.
In retrospect, the bishops would have been "more vigilant" if they had thought there was a distinct possibility that the same-sex marriage bill would pass, Dolan said.
Regarding abortions, Dolan said that rather than expanding that legal right, they want to see more restraint. He said Cuomo listened attentively on that but gave them "no assurances."
"We feel a high responsibility to speak up for the baby in the womb," Dolan said, adding their lawyers raise concerns that Catholic hospitals or providers might be forced to participate. In New York City, 40 percent of pregnancies end in abortion, he said, calling that "a tragedy."
The pending legislation in the Senate and Assembly contains "conscience clauses" saying it will not alter existing protections in state or federal law that permit providers to refuse to provide abortions on moral or religious grounds. Sponsors say the bill establishes the "affirmative" right of an individual to choose or refuse contraception, including abortion of a fetus that can't survive outside the uterus. That's basically defined as within 24 weeks of a woman's last menstrual period.
In her sponsor's memo, Assembly Member Deborah Glick said New York legalized abortions in 1970, followed by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling three years later, and its scope was clarified in subsequent federal court decisions. New York's laws have never been updated, and her bill would also remove "unenforceable" provisions in the penal law that criminalize abortions and prohibit the sale of nonprescription contraceptives to minors, the Manhattan Democrat wrote.
Dolan said opening a one-year window for sex abuse suits now barred by a statute of limitation would devastate parish finances for ongoing programs. He didn't have a cost estimate but said that was the experience in other states that did it.
"The perpetrators don't suffer. There's no burden on them. What suffers are the services and the ministries of the apostolates that we're doing now. Because where does the money come from? So the bishops of 30 years ago that allegedly may have reassigned abusers, they don't suffer. They're dead. So the people that suffer are those who are being served right now by the church. We feel that's a terribly unjust burden."
After meeting with Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, Dolan said the Long Island Republican indicated he shares their "great reservations" about the abortion rights bill, and also their apprehension about the sex-abuse bill "as a classical violation of American jurisprudence."
Dolan said Cuomo saw that point in their earlier meeting. "He's a good lawyer. He reminded us of his allegiance to classical jurisprudence that would see a great benefit to the protection of the statute of limitations to see the innocent are protected and that justice is done," he said.
The offices of Cuomo and Skelos did not immediately reply to requests for comment Monday.
Assemblywoman Margaret Markey, a Queens Democrat, is chief sponsor of the current bill. She says abuse is an issue across society, and the scandals at Penn State, Syracuse University and other schools undercut the claim her bill is anti-Catholic. She said research shows that 20 percent of children are affected, the trauma is lifelong and for many victims that one-year window is the only way to get justice.