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America magazine and the bishops: Response to Archbishop Chaput

11/1/06 - America magazine is the publication of the Jesuits in the United States. It has a circulation of about 45,000 in what is considered an educated readership of clerics, theologians, and active laity. Many Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) members like myself may be subscribers, whether in quite that elevated company or not.

It is therefore disheartening to learn that America just rejected an advertisement for VOTF’s Accountability petition to bishops that seeks full funding of the sexual abuse “causes and context” study, the naming of all credibly accused priests, and the establishment of effective finance councils with public release of financial reports in every parish. This rejection raises some interesting questions, especially in light of editorial decisions by America in its recent coverage of statutes of limitations reform.

Many may remember that Jesuit editor Fr. Thomas Reese was essentially removed in 2005 under pressure from American bishops upset over the magazine’s openness to nuanced coverage of subjects like communion for political figures and homosexuality. Whatever the intricacies of resignation/removal strategies, he was out. So, the new management walks a fine line in the culture wars among liberals and conservatives, or orthodox and heterodox, if you prefer, and all shades in between. It is not an enviable position to be in. Some balancing may have been in order, but what is their direction, since more head-rolling, whether voluntary or forced, is certainly unpalatable.

The key questions are these: How much control exactly do bishops have over its content, not in doctrinal terms, but in matters of temporal administration? Is it possible to present differing views maturely, or are bishops to be immune from responsible criticism of their positions?

Case in point: L. Martin Nussbaum, a noted attorney who has represented at least nine dioceses and archdioceses, and leads a national website and archive dedicated to defending the Church’s legal interests, had an article published on May 15 titled, Changing the Rules.

He argued in heated language that his clients were being treated unjustly because statutes of limitations reform was subverting the rule of law, and likely to elicit fraudulent claims. He attacked the repressed memories of clergy abuse survivors as “junk science,” their motives as “new opportunities” to get money, their lawyers as unscrupulous practitioners who unfairly hold bishops to contemporaneous standards of care, and their cooperation with the media’s “one-sided press coverage” as feeding anti-Catholicism. It was expected advocacy by the lobbyist for Colorado’s bishops.

Obviously, survivor advocates believed Nussbaum’s arguments were themselves unfair, and offered America counterpoint articles. The magazine did not publish any rebuttal article for over four months, when it finally ran law professor Marci Hamilton’s What the Clergy Sex Abuse Crisis Has Taught Us on September 25.

Hamilton is an expert in first amendment issues, who has testified for statutes of limitations reform, opening a ‘window’ period in which past survivors can file lawsuits, and who advises plaintiff attorneys. Her article argued for opening the courts to survivors because of the undisputed time it takes for them to come forward, and to protect children.

Since criminal statutes of limitations are usually time-barred, civil redress is the only way to learn who the abusers were, and to open records to learn the truth of the Church’s response. She cited Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput’s vigorous and effective strategies to block reform, especially since public schools are immune from prosecution. It was expected advocacy by a lobbyist for survivors, but accomplished without the inflammatory tone of Nussbaum’s rhetoric. And America deserves genuine credit for publishing it, even if late.

The aftermath of Hamilton’s article though is instructive. An immediate extended full-page letter in the next issue from Archbishop Chaput was given premium placement in a separate category just before the letters section. His response ignored Hamilton’s arguments about the time it takes for survivors to come forward, the differences between public and private schools in past reporting requirements, releases of documents, and public accountability; and in an ad hominem attack, implied her true position is one of anti-Catholic bigotry.

The notion that Hamilton would give a free pass to a different religious institution with the same breadth of sexual abuse simply if it were not the Catholic Church ignores her survivor advocacy against Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists and various Protestants sects. The Catholic Church is certainly the elephant in the room right now; no other religious entity publicly comes close in numbers or severity. If it did, Hamilton would respond the same way.

Interestingly, no letters countering Archbishop Chaput’s impassioned objections have been published, though some were submitted.

In addition, all the Catholic bishops of California signed a letter in which Hamilton was characterized as “one of the most vociferous and bitter critics” of the Church, whose book makes “extravagant claims” about abuse, and who targets the Church for unwarranted attack. The letter was pointedly sent to the head of the Jesuit order, as well as to America. Hamilton’s letter asking for evidence of these charges was itself barred from publication.

To date, there have been seven rebuttals spread out over five print issues: another diocesan attorney, a judge, a doctor, two general readers, in addition to the full page from Archbishop Chaput and the letter signed on behalf of all California bishops. This does not strike me as accidental, as though America must do penance for publishing a plaintiff’s arguments subsequent to ample coverage of the same for a diocesan attorney. The message could not be clearer.

By contrast, Nussbaum’s article generated one negative and one positive published letter in separate issues, so the impression of piling on for Hamilton is unmistakable. While running letters from bishops is expected, why are they exempt from questions about their conclusions? How pressured are America’s editors to create no waves for the hierarchy? What an object lesson this whole episode seems to typify.

The larger issue here is what constitutes fair and comprehensive coverage in a Jesuit magazine, not as determined only by bishops, but a cross-section of the faithful, where opposing views on administrative issues are able to find expression. I sympathize with editors looking to strike a balance, but not where that balance is so skewed, as in this case. I will continue to subscribe, though with heavy heart, looking always for survivor-related coverage not only to be included, but also to accurately reflect their positions.

Can it be that just when hope fades, grace appears to lighten one’s heart on All Saints Day? Today’s New York Times has an op-ed by Fr. James Martin, an associate editor of America, in which he mentions Voice of the Faithful as a possible repository for a future saint. Citing the opposition that Mother Theodore Guerin encountered in her days from her bishop, Fr. Martin draws a generous analogy to today’s difficult relationships between laity and hierarchy. Add survivors, so marginalized and hurting in our time, and the point becomes that all may find shared rest someday in the Lord’s presence. To which I add, Amen.

Carolyn B. Disco
Survivor Support Chairman
NH Voice of the Faithful

Here is my response to Archbishop Chaput’s article.

To the Editor:

The article by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput on The False Promise of ‘Window’ Legislation (10-9-06) is disappointing in that it fails to address the points raised in the article to which he was responding.

In What the Clergy Abuse Crisis Has Taught Us (9-25-06), law professor Marci Hamilton proposed abolishing statutes of limitations prospectively for child sexual abuse based on the demonstrated inability of victims or survivors to come forward in time. In addition, she advocated for the opening of a ‘window’ for past victims as a way both to give them an opportunity to seek justice, and to protect children.

Archbishop Chaput countered that Professor Hamilton did not care about child protection since priests long dead cannot recidivate, and that she was really targeting Catholic institutions since public schools are exempt from litigation. In an unfortunate final line of ad hominem attack, he accused her of offering “false arguments to hide” her true intent.

But exactly how false are Professor Hamilton’s arguments? Archbishop Chaput does not dispute that victims are demonstrably unable to come forward in time. He simply urges them to do so, without any acknowledgement that the evidence demonstrates clearly that dysfunction due to alcohol or drug addiction, crippling depression or rages, recurring trauma, sexual promiscuity, ignorance of the law or even the stalling tactics of dioceses precluded timely filings. One cannot force feed healing to meet an artificial and arbitrary legal deadline. This is a true argument from every standpoint, which Archbishop Chaput chose to sidestep.

Professor Hamilton noted that abuse reports are received less than 20 percent of the time, indicating the chilling scope of the problem. Archbishop Chaput inadvertently reinforced her point in citing that over 1,000 plaintiffs filed lawsuits following the passage of window legislation in California. Does he believe that these victims should be barred from even the possibility of access to justice? He also indicted the greed of plaintiff lawyers as the motive for statutory reform, not concern for children. Yet, he did not indicate how many of the priests charged are still living, or newly identified, who indeed may still be abusing. Even if the accused are dead, victims live, and need to have the truth known, as do we all. The truth will set us free, even if it is incriminating.

The reality in California is that it is Archbishop Chaput’s dire predictions regarding window legislation that were proved false. As David Clohessy, executive director of SNAP, notes, the courts there are not clogged, no diocese in the state is bankrupt or even threatening bankruptcy, no churches are closing, no other group is asking the legislature to change the rules for us too, and there is no deluge of false allegations.

Contrary to the archbishop’s claims that children are not protected by statute reform, Clohessy reports that dozens of predators were exposed and removed, hundreds of victims are getting some degree of healing and justice, thousands of pages of secret church documents are being released (ay, there’s the rub), and millions of citizens are learning about child molesters and their enablers. Any perusal of about 50,000 Church documents, attorney general, grand jury and district attorney reports, and articles on www.bishopaccountability.org - all made public only through the courage of survivors approaching the courts - makes clear why I believe the hierarchy is committed to preventing further legislative actions that will inevitably expose more of the same. There would have been no scandal without the documents.

Archbishop Chaput repeats a key argument he used to defeat reform legislation in Colorado, claiming that public schools should not be exempt by sovereign immunity from civil damages, as long as the Catholic Church and private institutions remain liable. Professor Hamilton notes that public and private entities are mostly covered in separate legislation, and not one law singles out any religion or organization.

I add that public entities have accountability models unthinkable in the Church, so Archbishop Chaput’s complaints are unwarranted. School board members, of which I was one, are subject to removal from office by public vote if they enable abusers or hide documents; their budgets are subject to public scrutiny and approval; and they cannot claim immunity under any constitutional amendment to justify conduct that is illegal for the rest of us.

Despite thousands of sexual assaults, not one bishop, archbishop, cardinal or diocese has been held to account in court for conspiracy to hide abuse, obstruction of justice, accessory after the fact, criminal endangerment of children, or perjury and false statements, the latter part of a planned New Hampshire indictment that was plea bargained. Restrictive statutes of limitations and inadequate corporate liability laws foreclosed such indictments, even though sufficient evidence existed to warrant them under any common sense understanding of those terms. The refusal of insurance companies to pay certain claims is testimony to the hierarchy’s culpability in its standards of care. So, cries of injustice and lack of fairness by Archbishop Chaput ring hollow.

His last point that laws must not create new victims, in the sense of burdening current parishioners for past actions strikes me as counter to the Gospel. Sin (and crime) has consequences and we all as the Body of Christ share in them. Jesus rejected notions like “it’s not my fault,” and so should we. Child sexual abuse survivors stand as victims of the Church herself, and as such should have a special claim on our consciences. Let’s pay the price in justice, not in charity, and then move on together with heads held high.




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