Bills enabling a statewide clergy abuse investigation stalled in Kentucky. Supporters blame ‘politics’

State lawmakers failed to advance or even consider proposed legislation.

June 5, 2019, 8:13 AM

A pair of bills that would have opened an avenue to investigate alleged clergy abuse in Kentucky languished in this year’s legislative session, and some supporters of the proposals say partisan politics is to blame.

Amid a national reckoning over allegations of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, Kentucky lawmakers failed to advance or even consider legislation to expand the Attorney General’s powers to investigate crimes, like clergy abuse, that often occur across multiple jurisdictions. Now, the attorney general and his allies are crying foul.

Attorney General Andy Beshear, the highest-ranking Democrat in a state government otherwise controlled by Republicans, is running for governor in what is expected to be a hotly contested campaign. According to Gretchen Hunt, who leads the Attorney General’s Office of Victims Advocacy, Republican lawmakers were reluctant to empower a political rival to conduct a headline-making probe with an election approaching.

“Putting politics above victims and survivors is a bad way to do public policy,” Hunt told ABC News. “The injustice of that is very profound.”

Because Kentucky seats only a part-time legislature, the bills will not return to the floor until 2020, frustrating those eager for Kentucky to join more than a dozen other states where statewide investigations of alleged clergy abuse are already underway.

“It’s a problem,” Rep. Jeff Donohue, a Democrat, who worked with the Attorney General’s Office to introduce one of the stymied pieces of legislation, told ABC News. “I got to have partners to work with towards this, but I’m having trouble finding them. The only explanation is political.”

PHOTO: Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear, left, addresses his supporters following his victory in the democratic primary for Governor in Louisville, Ky., Tuesday, May 21, 2019.
Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear, left, addresses his supporters following his victory in the democratic primary for Governor in Louisville, Ky., Tuesday, May 21, 2019.
Timothy D. Easley/AP, FILE

In the wake of the Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing a massive coverup of clergy abuse allegations by the Catholic Church, investigations have been launched in Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia and the District of Columbia, as well as with the Archdiocese of Anchorage in Alaska.

Spokespersons for attorneys general in several other states told ABC News that their offices did not have the power to launch statewide investigations; they could only take cases referred to them by local prosecutors. Beshear sought to change that in his state, asking lawmakers to allow his office to petition the Kentucky Supreme Court to convene a special grand jury for a similar statewide investigation.

“The major advantage of having a special grand jury is that it consolidates the investigation and prosecution of crimes that may have occurred in numerous counties to numerous victims,” Beshear said in a press release in September. “When needed, this process would work faster, be more efficient and happen on a larger scale for the many victims impacted.”

A pair of bills addressing the issue — HB 65 introduced by Rep. Donahue, a Democrat, and HB 105, introduced by Rep. Lynn Bechler, a Republican — were pre-filed before the start of the legislative session in January and introduced to the House Judiciary Committee.

But even after the Archdiocese of Louisville released the names of 48 priests and members of religious orders who had been credibly accused of child sexual abuse, and six Kentucky men were identified among the nearly 400 Southern Baptist church preachers and volunteers accused of sexual abuse, Rep. Jason Petrie, the Republican Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, did not hold a hearing for either bill.

PHOTO: An aerial view of the capitol building in Frankfort, Ky.
An aerial view of the capitol building in Frankfort, Ky.
Kevin R. Morris/corbis/vcg/Getty Images, FILE

In response to questions from ABC News, Petrie — who identified “religious liberty” as one his core campaign issues — acknowledged the state had “a gap in prosecutorial coverage.”

He says he met with the deputy attorney general and the state’s chief justice to discuss the proposals before determining that he needed more time than the short legislative session allowed to work out what it would take to make what he called a “fairly significant” change in the law.

“Some topics are just too large,” Petrie told ABC News, “to push through in a short time.”

He further insisted upcoming gubernatorial election “had no bearing" on his decision not to proceed on either bill.

Bechler, the Republican author of one of the bills, told ABC News that while he is concerned the legislation has been shelved until 2020, he also attributed the delay to timing.

“It’s not political at all,” Bechler told ABC News. “I don’t believe that the failure to have it heard had anything to do with [the governor’s race]. This is a bipartisan issue.”

Donohue, the Democrat, however, disagrees, citing “a lack of political courage.”

“This bill could have done something to help the state of Kentucky,” Donohue said of the legislation he introduced. “As the chairperson, [Petrie] has to take responsibility.”

Petrie told ABC News that he plans to continue to work on the issue with his colleagues during interim meetings over the summer in preparation for bringing another bill forward in 2020, though his committee’s first session did not appear to have the issue on the agenda.

For some victims’ advocates, however, too much time has passed already.

“Not to decide is to decide against the very rights you vow to protect,” said Rev. Dr. Beverly Weinhold, a member of the Attorney General’s 2017-18 Survivors Council, in a statement to ABC News. “Your refusal to hear the bill adds one more layer of silence to the collusion of the church.“