By Reuven Blau and Brad Hamilton (NY Post)
May 31, 2009
Thou shalt not blackmail.
Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio threatened state lawmakers by vowing to close churches in their districts -- and blame them for the closures -- if they dared support a bill making it easier for people who were sexually assaulted as kids to sue, legislators told The Post.
They said the dark warning came during a "legislative breakfast" at DiMarzio's Brooklyn residence, as he told the gathering of about 20 state and city politicians that he would retaliate against Albany lawmakers if they backed the Child Victims Act.
The controversial bill -- which could be heading for an Assembly floor debate as soon as June 8 -- seeks to extend the statute of limitations for lawsuits involving the rape or molesting of youngsters. It could cost the Church hundreds of millions in payouts to victimized parishioners.
Two lawmakers said the bishop brazenly bullied them during the coffee-and-doughnuts gathering at his stately brick residence in Clinton Hill on Oct. 21.
"He said, 'If it passes, we will close a parish in each of your districts and we will tell your constituents that it was your fault,' " said one Assembly member who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
"I was shocked," he said. "I've never seen a threat like that made at any lobby meeting."
A senator who asked not to be identified said: "The hair on the back of my head stood up. In my years of Catholic schooling, we were never taught to be so vindictive, and here's my bishop saying, 'I'll close a church in your district.' "
A City Council member said: "He brought up this bill, and he went on a tirade about it, saying, 'We'll have to close churches, and you'll be the ones responsible for it. It will be your fault.'
"He basically threatened the room. I was appalled."
The author of the legislation, Queens Assemblywoman Margaret Markey, did not attend the breakfast, but she said lawmakers who were there told her about DiMarzio's remarks.
"People take offense at that," she said. "Legislators do not want to be threatened by anyone. You don't close parishes just because a state legislator votes on a particular bill."
The assemblyman who spoke to The Post said DiMarzio's ploy backfired -- the lawmaker was so put off that he signed on to Markey's measure as a co-sponsor.
"Her bill was not on my radar screen, but the obnoxiousness of his threat made me take a look at it," he said.
DiMarzio, 64, is the leader of the Brooklyn Diocese, which oversees 1.6 million Catholics at 198 parishes and schools in Brooklyn and Queens.
He has spearheaded an intense lobbying effort against the bill, which would give new hope to hundreds whose civil claims that they were sexually abused by priests or educators were tossed out because they were filed too late.
Currently, alleged victims can file suit when they turn 18 but not after age 23. The bill would extend that window to age 28.
It would also suspend all limits for one year, allowing anyone whose claim was previously dismissed on statute-of-limitations grounds to relaunch the lawsuit.
It was unclear exactly how many people might be affected, but in 2006, the state Court of Appeals tossed out a $300 million suit by 42 litigants against 24 priests in the Brooklyn Diocese because the plaintiffs waited too long to file.
The bishop's spokesman emphatically denied that DiMarzio threatened the lawmakers.
"There's no question about it being blackmail," the Rev. Kieran Harrington said. "If the legislators are saying there's a threat involved, they're trying to create a story where there is no story. We're dealing with an anti-Catholic bias that's pervading the New York state Assembly."
DiMarzio was merely pointing out to the pols that the diocese would be financially devastated if the bill becomes law, he said.
"The consequences for our community would be profound," Harrington said.
DiMarzio also took the fight directly to Markey, a five-term incumbent, when she was up for re-election last November, actively campaigning for her opponent, Republican challenger Anthony Nunziato.
"There was literature calling me anti-Catholic," said Markey, a Catholic whose three adult children all attended Catholic schools.
DiMarzio last month turned to Congressman Joseph Crowley, the Queens Democratic Party chair, asking him to put pressure on Markey over the bill, according to a high-level Assembly source.
Crowley angrily rebuffed him, the source said.
"Crowley in effect told the bishop, 'You're a paper tiger. You went against her and failed.' He told the bishop there was nothing he could do," the source said.
But Crowley denied that the exchange took place.
"I have not had a conversation with the bishop since last year," he said.
Markey's camp criticizes the bishop for engaging in bare-knuckle politics.
"Aside from the separation of church and state, there's an unseemly quality of getting involved at this level," said one of her aides, who asked not to be quoted by name.
Additional reporting by Fredric U. Dicker, David Seifman and Angela Montefinise