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Maryland Catholic Conference to address life, education and other issues in ’23 session

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Days before the Maryland General Assembly’s session began Jan. 11, Maryland Catholic Conference Executive Director Jenny Kraska noted that – even with a new governor and new legislators – many of the same topics the church addresses perennially will be on the legislative agenda in 2023.

The conference represents the public policy interests of the bishops who serve Maryland and their dioceses – the archdioceses of Baltimore and Washington and the Diocese of Wilmington, Del.

“With the change in administration, new governor, lots of new legislators, it just takes a little bit of time to kind of get up and running,” Kraska told the editors of Maryland’s diocesan publications in a conference call Jan. 5.

Respect for life

Life issues will again be at the forefront, with Kraska predicting that a bill allowing physician-assisted suicide will be introduced. Last year, a similar bill passed the state House of Delegates but did not reach the floor in the Senate. In past years, Kraska and other MCC officials have said that physician-assisted suicide especially threatens those who are most vulnerable and that the law provides few safeguards.

“Our responsibility as Catholics is to be a voice for the voiceless, the most vulnerable and those at the periphery of society,” Kraska said in November 2021. “Those most likely to be harmed by this dangerous legislation are racial and ethnic minorities, the poor, the elderly and those with disabilities.”

Kraska said that for this session, another challenge is that Gov-Elect Wes Moore (D.) has indicated he is in favor of physician-assisted suicide.

Jennifer Kraska, Maryland Catholic Conference executive director.

Supporters of physician-assisted suicide advocate for so-called “death with dignity,” but ignore quality medical care, such as life-saving procedures, palliative care and hospice care. PAS goes against the teachings of the Catholic Church, in which life is sacred from conception to natural death.

Kraska expects abortion-related legislation to be prominent this session, as well, since Maryland is “extraordinarily progressive” in terms of abortion. Last year, a law was passed that expanded insurance coverage for abortions for some employers and allows non-physicians – including nurse practitioners, nurse-midwives, licensed midwives and physician assistants – to perform abortions. Gov. Larry Hogan (R.) vetoed the bill, but the General Assembly overrode the veto.

This year, “the state expects there to be a massive increase in women who are coming from the states surrounding Maryland to access abortion services here in Maryland,” Kraska said. She said the conference expects there will be bills to fund abortion clinics, and to fund again the training of nonmedical doctors to perform abortions.

She said it is also likely the Legislature will put forward a referendum to create an amendment to enshrine the right to abortion in the state Constitution. “I really do expect, barring some unforeseen circumstance, … that this will get through, and we’ll see it on the ballot in (November) 2024.” she said.

Last session, the conference supported successful efforts to assist pregnant and parenting high school students. Del. Anne Healey (D.-22, Prince George’s County) introduced a bill to offer those same protections to college-age women, which passed the House with bipartisan support but did not make it through the Senate before the end of the session.

Kraska said if a similar bill is introduced this year, the MCC would support it, as it would another bill expected to provide support for pregnant women in prison to allow the mother access to her child for up to a year so that the mother and child can bond.

Education

Education is always a hot topic for the MCC, with funding for the BOOST (Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today) program that provides scholarships for low-income families that choose nonpublic schools at the forefront.

With the change in administrations, Hogan will present a budget before he leaves office, and he has traditionally included funding for BOOST in the picture. After Moore is sworn in Jan. 18 (after this issue goes to press), he can present a supplemental budget or a completely new budget.

“When push comes to shove, we’re not sure where it’s all going to shake out in the budget,” Kraska said. The MCC expects the House will try to phase out the funding for BOOST and the program itself.

“The Senate has always been much more affable to us on this issue and has really been sort of the governing body that is more of the champion of BOOST,” she said. “We have folks in the Senate who are returning who have been wonderful champions of the BOOST program in a very bipartisan fashion.”

Social justice concerns

On  immigration issues, the conference expects a lot to be addressed, and hopes to support expansion of prenatal and postnatal health care for immigrants in Maryland.

“We have been told that there will be a bill introduced that will automatically enroll people who are eligible into the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) in Maryland,” she said. For many reasons, including not having access to a computer or lack of documentation, a lot of people who are eligible who never sign up for those benefits.

Behavioral health issues may receive attention, especially in the continued aftermath of COVID and the mental health challenges that arose in the past couple of years. “The State of Maryland has said that they really want to commit more money, more resources into mental health for all ages. So, that’s why I think we’ll see a lot of legislation, … especially increase in funding for resources for behavioral and mental health issues,” Kraska said.

“If there is a bill that is providing additional (mental health) funds for public schools, we would definitely be lobbying to have nonpublic schools included in that, because all children are facing a lot of these issues,” she said.

Sexual abuse

A major recurring topic at the state level is the statute of limitations for civil suits regarding the sexual abuse of a minor. In Maryland, there is no criminal statute of limitations for sexual abuse of a minor.

With the expected release of a report by the outgoing Maryland attorney general covering the last 80 years of activity within the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Kraska said the MCC expects that a bill will be introduced again to open a window for civil suits. A bill could also be introduced that would prospectively eliminate statutes of limitation for civil litigation involving cases of child sexual abuse.

Prospectively eliminating the statutes of limitations would affect cases of sexual abuse that occur now or in the future. It would not affect cases that happened in the past, retroactively. In general, the statute of limitations that applies in a case is the one that was in effect at the time of the abuse, not when it was reported.

In a Dec. 19 statement, the MCC said, “The Catholic Church in Maryland will support legislation that may be introduced during the 2023 Maryland General Assembly session that prospectively eliminates the statute of limitation in civil lawsuits involving cases of child sexual abuse.

“For some victims of such crimes, it may take decades before they are able to come forward to report their abuse. In the past, the Catholic Church in Maryland has supported efforts to extend the age by which victim-survivors may file civil suits,” the MCC said.

Currently, the law in Maryland allows victims until the age of 38 to file such claims, an extension – from age 25 – that was supported by the church in 2017.

In the Jan. 5 briefing for editors, Kraska said the conference has always said – in statements and in submitted testimony – that there should be parity between public and private schools in the way they are treated in civil suits for damages.

“The advocates of this type of legislation, including Del. (C.T.) Wilson (D.-28, Charles County), have always been really clear that this is about justice for children and protecting children,” Kraska said. “And I think that if you’re serious about that, then it shouldn’t matter where a child was abused, whether it was public or private entity. … If you’re going to hold entities accountable, all entities where children might have experienced abuse should be held accountable.”

Since the early 1980s, the Archdiocese of Baltimore has paid more than $13.2 million to 301 victim-survivors for counseling and direct payments. “As part of this pastoral outreach, in 2007 the archdiocese began a mediation program with a retired, non-Catholic judge that has resulted in 105 settlements for a total of $6.8 million,” said Christian Kendzierski, executive director of communications for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. “Offers of counseling assistance and mediations are made to victim-survivors regardless of how long ago the alleged abuse occurred and without regard to legal liability.”

Advocacy and action

The MCC will sponsor opportunities for people to be involved and engaged with their state legislators.

A March 2 rally for nonpublic schools – including Catholic schools, those from other faiths and private non-denominational schools – will bring schoolchildren, teachers and parents to Annapolis for a gathering at the Knights of Columbus hall at St. John Neumann, with buses to take them to appointments with legislators’ offices.

Catholic Day at the Capitol, scheduled for mid-February, will be virtual again this year. A prayer vigil for life will be held March 9 at St. Mary’s Church near the capitol.

The MCC also encourages Catholics to check its new website for advocacy opportunities. “We know that legislators pay attention to what they hear from their constituents, so an important part of our work is engaging parishioners at critical points during session,” Kraska said.

Parishioners can sign up for the Catholic Advocacy Network to receive email updates and action alerts about issues throughout the legislative season – which runs until April 10 – at mdcatholic.org/joincan or texting MDCATHOLIC to 52886.