Brian Beutler digs deeper in the story that has been in the news for the past few weeks, about Republican Senate candidate Ron Johnson's opposition to state legislation to extending the statute of limitations allowing victims of childhood sexual abuse to sue their abusers. Last week, it emerged that Johnson was on the Green Bay Dioceses Finance Council at the time he testified to the state legislature against the proposed new law.
As Beutler reports, Johnson "insisted at the time that he testified as an active member of the business and non-profit community -- not specifically, and most pressingly, as a representative of the Catholic Church."
But the road he took to testifying at the Madison statehouse in January of this year belies that contention.
Deacon Tim Reilly, Director of Administration for the Diocese of Green Bay told TPM that the Church played a significant role in getting Johnson to the state capital. According to Reilly, the Church didn't support the legislation and wanted to raise public awareness of its objections. So the diocese arranged for a meeting with Randy Hopper, the state senator in the Oshkosh area who sits on the panel that was deciding whether this legislation would go to the floor for a vote. Some 20 people met at St. Rafael's Parish in Oshkosh, several of whom spoke -- including Johnson. His arguments were among the most articulate and persuasive to the group, so Hopper asked him to go to Madison and testify -- the sort of not-quite-lobbying that happens in Washington and in state capitals around the country all the time.
Reilly reiterated to TPM that Johnson was not speaking specifically on behalf of the church. "He was speaking on his own behalf, as a concerned citizen, that this would adversely affect the Catholic School System and the Boys and Girls Club and the YMCA and other non-profits without government protection."
That beggars belief, according to experts and clergymen.
"He can't be testifying just as a concerned citizen," says Father Tom Doyle, a priest who presciently warned the Catholic Church about the looming sex abuse scandal years ago. "If he was a member of the finance council of the diocese, the senator picked him out not because he was concerned about the Boys and Girls Club.... I don't know of any instance where a layperson, on his own, without any connection with the Church administration has come forward to testify."
Jim Stang, an attorney for official committees of abuse survivors in six Catholic affiliated bankruptcy cases, told TPM that these finance committees -- mandated at every diocese in the country -- are well-positioned to know about the skeletons in the Church's closets. When a case is settled, for instance, it would be in the financial interest of the Church, and therefore the council, to know of any other potential victims, and therefore lawsuits.
"It would certainly be in the area of finance committee's appropriate inquiry to ask," Stang said.
Ultimately, though, Stang said it should come as no surprise that Johnson's testimony so closely mirrored the Church's position.
"I think you'd have to live in some kind of plastic bubble to not make the association between statute of limitations reform and the financial impact on the diocese," Stang said. "It's certainly the argument the Church has been making for years."
Essentially, Johnson (a non-Catholic) was perpetuating the cover-up and lack of accountability by the Catholic Church of years of sexual abuse of children by priests. Specifically, in the case of the Greenbay Diocese, Johnson was working with bishop Robert Morneau, who had been aware for years of the sexual assaults of Rev. John Feeney, a priest in the diocese who was finally convicted in 2003. The abuse, however, went back to the 1970s. The Church, and Johnson, was fighting against the possibility that it could be held financially liable to Feeney's victims that this legislation would have created.