SUPPORT FOR CHANGES IN STATUTES OF LIMITATION
Thomas Doyle - Nov. 17, 2005
The sexual abuse nightmare that has been gripping the Catholic community for
over twenty years is far from over. Contrary to Archbishop Gregory’s
dream, the history of clergy abuse is not history. It won’t be history
until there is a radical change not only in the governing structure of the
Catholic Church, but in the way that leadership is exercised. More important
though, is the need for a radical change in the attitude of the clerical leadership,
especially the bishops, towards lay persons in general and clergy sex abuse
victims in particular.
There are no signs of a change in attitude. It remains predominantly defensive,
arrogant, secretive and distant. The policy changes and the addition of lay
review boards which have only been since 2002, and not since 1984 when the
present wave of abuse revelations started, are not the result of proactive
movements by anyone in the hierarchy and they certainly are not the result
of Vatican concern and direction. Any and all efforts made by the USCCB, the
Vatican or most individual dioceses have been a reluctant reaction to intense
media coverage and the pressure from the many legal cases taking place throughout
the country. Were it not for this pressure there would have been little if
any appreciable change in the way the institutional Church has responded to
clergy sexual abuse.
The Church cannot put the countless victims of sexual abuse on hold while
it tries to figure out where it is going. That part of the Church that should
be forging ahead for justice and healing is not. It is left to the majority
of the Catholic community.....the lay men and women, the religious and those
few clerics who have courageously stepped forward. We cannot wait for the hierarchy
to proactively bring justice to the victims. We cannot wait for the hierarchy
to look into their own role in the clergy abuse nightmare. We cannot wait for
the institutional Church to bring justice by way of its own processes because
this simply won’t happen. We must reach out and do all we can to change
the image of Catholicism from that of a cold institution to a true Christian
For decades the bishops knew of sexual abuse by the priests over whom they
had authority and they did little more than admonish them and transfer them
from parish to parish and in some cases, diocese to diocese. There are even
cases when bishops have allowed known sexual predators to escape to foreign
countries, including the Vatican. The full scope of this travesty only came
to light when the civil court processes forced bishops and religious superiors
to turn over documents and to admit, in official testimony, what had been happening.
No information about the extent of sexual abuse has ever been forthcoming from
the hierarchy. The only way it has ever come to light has been the result of
pressure from the legal system and from the secular media. The institutional
Church will respond only to a force greater than itself and that force, with
respect to the victims of clergy sex abuse, is the civil law. The true picture
of clergy sexual abuse and its cover-up has emerged from documents obtained
upon demand and from the grand jury investigations.
Throughout the United States there are countless adult men and women who were
sexually abused as children by Catholic clerics. These people have received
little if anything from the institutional Church. Their only hope for healing
and for justice has been in the civil courts and now this is denied them because
the Statutes of Limitations have precluded any civil action. There are many
reasons why victims have not been able to initiate cases due to Statute problems:
a) The Statute differs from State to State. In some cases the abuse happened
in one State and the victim now lives in another. Victims often received conflicting
b) In some cases victims approached Church officials and were promised some
form of response but were actually delayed until the Statute ran out. In such
cases Church officials intentionally strung them along until that Statute expired,
and then they ceased any contacts with them.
c) Many victims simply were not emotionally strong enough to come forward
for many years. They were impeded by grave fear that disclosure would result
in shame, ridicule or disbelief. Most believed what the Church had taught them
namely, that priests were sacred persons and to criticize one or accuse one
of sexual abuse would result in God’s wrath on the victim. Most were
literally paralyzed by such fear.
The strongest opposition to State legislative changes that would protect children
and benefit sexual abuse victims whether clergy victims or not, comes from
the Catholic Bishops and their lobbying agents, the various State Catholic
Conferences. Proponents of legislative changes often include victim support
groups such as SNAP but basically their efforts are grass roots and meagerly
funded. On the other side, the bishops are able to muster significant financial
and tactical resources to try to convince lawmakers to oppose changes or to
influence parishioners to put pressure on lawmakers.
Victims of sexual abuse generally communicate with law makers by mail, email
or appearances at legislative hearings. They tell their stories. The bishops
on the other hand, generally try to advance reasons why extensions of the Statutes
of Limitations will be harmful to the Church or why mandatory reporting legislation
will threaten privileged communications. In the recent past the efforts by
the institutional Church have included dissemination of false information aimed
at creating either fear in the parishioners or lawmakers, or disdain for the
victims. In Ohio for example, parish priests were instructed to preach against
proposed legislation from the pulpit. In Maryland and D.C., parishioners cars
were leafleted at Mass on a specific Sunday and they were told that the passage
of a bill would mean that confessional confidentiality would be compromised.
The Bishops have money, full time lobbyists, access to lawmakers and immediate
access to parishioners. The victims have the truth.
It is essential to support legislative changes in four areas: (1) extension
of the Statutes of Limitations well beyond the limited number of years common
to most States or, elimination altogether; (2) passage of a “look-back
window” of a year or more to enable persons who have fallen outside the
Statute to come forward and initiate cases; (3) legislation to strengthen child
abuse reporting laws and their enforcement, including mandatory reporting by
clergy except when genuine privileged communications would preclude such reports;
(4) legislation to hold accountable institutions and individuals whose actions
place children at risk of abuse or prevent or delay the detection or prosecution
of child abusers.
The opponents of legislative changes have argued that such legislation will
have a disastrous effect for the Church. Some of these claims include the following:
a) The courts will be flooded with cases which will bankrupt the Church
b) There will be a significant increase in false claims
c) The look-back window is unconstitutional
d) Making clergy mandatory reporters will threaten the sanctity of sacramental
e) There will be numerous false claims of sexual abuse.
None of these claims have any factual basis. If the Statute is extended there
will be more cases but this means that more people will be able to seek justice.
Sexual abuse does not heal itself. The scars and the trauma remain. Often the
only real healing begins when the victim is able to begin the legal process.
Most victims who have not come forward for years or even decades were prevented
from doing so because of the fear instilled in them by the Church teaching.
The men whom they supported and trusted were the very ones who instilled the
fear and later abused them. In the recent past the attorneys have often done
what the clergy should have but did not do hey believed the victims, offered
sympathy and support and a concrete hope for justice.
There have been several thousand civil cases with bishops or religious communities
as defendants. Cases have been filed in every diocese and archdiocese in the
U.S. The monetary settlements and awards have steadily increased over the years.
One of the reasons the amounts have grown has been the increasingly sordid
nature of the cases as revealed in the discovery process. Another reason is
related to the often lengthy, painful and humiliating delays in the legal process.
Though the bishops and their defenders often point to the high dollar awards
with the assertion that such sums are beyond the Church financial capability,
they never reveal the significant costs their own lawyers run up with the seemingly
endless delays nor do they reveal the amounts expended on public relations
firms to manipulate the institutional Church image. In many instances the legal
costs incurred by the Church as they attempted to frustrate the victims claims
matched or exceeded the settlement awards to victims.
The fear of a flood of false claims is baseless. Around the U.S. less than
10 false claims have been reported in nearly two decades and none of these
ever made it beyond the initial stages of the process. Most attorneys who represent
victims put prospective clients through a rigorous screening and discernment
process. Their purpose is to determine if the claim is authentic and if the
victim has the emotional stamina to go through the lengthy and stressful process.
Two dioceses and one archdiocese have filed for bankruptcy protection. In
all three cases the filings took place not long before potentially damaging
trials were to start. The hidden agenda for filing for bankruptcy protection
is to eliminate or seriously limit recompense for the victims. Bankruptcy was
used more as a scare tactic in the past than an actual alternative. The experience
with the three actual instances proved far more embarrassing to the institutional
Church than it was beneficial because it forced openness about church finances
that had never before been seen.
However there is an even more important dimension to the concern about bankruptcy.
Are the Church’s buildings, securities portfolios and bank balances more
valuable than the emotional, physical and spiritual lives of the very people
harmed by the clergy? Some Church officials have defended the harsh legal defenses
by claiming that they have an obligation to protect the Church financial patrimony.
This is true, but the Churchmen have an even more basic obligation to protect
the moral and spiritual welfare of the Church’s people.
The number of people who will be able to take advantage of an extended Statute
of Limitations or a look-back window will surely bring more embarrassment to
the institutional Church and will add to the outcry for episcopal accountability.
It will not bring bankruptcy for dioceses. It may mean that bishops will be
forced to sell off property if insurance carriers do not cover the jury awards
or the settlement amounts. It also may mean that some bishops will have to
reveal the existence of substantial holdings that had remained hidden from
the faithful but it will not mean that the Catholic community will be without
resources nor will it spell an end to charitable works.
Frequently dioceses claim that the awards to sex abuse victims have severely
curtailed the resources available for charitable works. This is actually a
vile attempt at shifting blame. If any group is entitled to the Church’s
charitable and social services it is the victims of clergy abuse. On a more
pragmatic level though, most Catholics are unaware of the fact that the majority
of funding for Catholic Charities comes not from the dioceses but from federal,
State or local grants or support.
Will the courts be flooded with cases? No doubt there will be an increase
but it will hardly immobilize the court systems nor cause such a bottleneck
that cases won progress in a timely fashion. In fact, the vast majority will
probably never make it to the trial process. Over the past 20 years only a
handful of cases have not been settled and ended up in trial. In any event,
we must realize that the reason clergy abuse victims have resorted to the civil
law has been because the Church’s own legal system, Canon Law, has failed
them. Victims of clergy sexual abuse have gone to the civil system as a last
resort because the Church failed to provide compassionate pastoral care or
effective legal due process.
The bishops have appealed to Catholic fears by leading people to believe that
they will be forced into bankruptcy. What they really fear is the revelations
that will come forth from the legal process. The sacred secrecy that protected
the system for so long was only broken when the victims went to court to learn
the truth. If in fact the Church has done its duty to victims, as so many bishops
and their lobbyists claim, then they have nothing to fear. The civil process
will vindicate them!
It is vitally important, even essential, that organizations such as Voice
of the Faithful who support clergy abuse victims give their unequivocal support
to Statute of Limitations extensions and to look-back windows. If such support
appears qualified, timid or is simply not there, the organizations credibility
will plummet and the heroic efforts of the survivors and their supporters in
several states could be seriously impaired.
Voicing support for the victims of clergy sexual abuse and calling for leadership
accountability and financial openness entails risk. A significant part of the
risk involves breaking out of the shell of clerical control that still subconsciously
manipulates Catholics. Another aspect of risk involves openness to the possibility
that the Church will be able to fulfill its mission in spite of diminished
diocesan treasuries. In fact, the Church as Christian community might be able
to function more authentically if the dependence on material wealth is changed.