Always the Biggest Target

By Christine M. Flowers
Philadelphia Daily News [United States]
December 1, 2006

Swatting at giants is always in fashion. No one ever roots for the big guy; the underdog has the sympathy factor.

It's David vs. Goliath. The colonial army vs. the Redcoats. Look no further than our own Art Museum, to Rocky. Whenever a group or individual has privilege, wealth and tradition on its side, we instinctively tend to oppose it.

So it is with the Catholic Church. It's hard to argue that the church is an underdog in anything except, perhaps, the court of public opinion. It has all the accoutrements of institutional power, and its reach in both spiritual and temporal matters is enormous. No other single denomination has had more of an impact on western civilization, for good or for bad, than Catholicism. So, yes, it does have resources.

And maybe that's why it always seems to be open season on the church.

Gays and lesbians are outraged because, surprise, the Catholic Conference of Bishops condemns homosexual activity. The fact that it also reaffirms the intrinsic dignity of the GLBT community doesn't matter because we all know that our fundamental identity is determined by our choice of sex partners.

Women who want to be priests charge the church with discrimination. The more enterprising get themselves ordained on a cruise on the Allegheny River.

Those who have a problem with the church's position on birth control and abortion don't think it necessary to find another, more welcoming tent. They demand that the church change its policies because, after all, an evolved society promotes "safe sex" - not abstinence for teens. And only Neanderthals truly believe that the ectoplasm in the womb might actually possess a soul.

But the biggest stones start flying when we talk about the abuse scandal that's rocked the church for a decade. No one can deny that sins, and crimes, were committed by a small percentage of the clergy and their protectors. The pedophilia, improper relations between priests and adults, and cover-ups by the hierarchy bring shame to each of us who sit in the pews.

And yet I can't help but think that some of those who used to sit in the pews next to us take the most perverse glee in this public flagellation of the church, former Catholics who rejoice in the attacks on a Goliath they no longer accept. Perhaps they want to cut him down to size, extracting some revenge because of their private grievances.

That's OK, it happens all the time. But playing around with the legal system because of it is wrong in a society founded on the integrity of the law.

The state legislature has just passed a bill that, among other things, expands the statute of limitations for victims of child sexual abuse to bring criminal charges against their abusers. Few people have a problem with widening the protections for victims of serious crime, especially when they are children.

But the advocates want more. They're still upset because the law wouldn't be retroactive. They say that many victims will be left without any recourse because they've passed the age when criminal charges can be brought. (In many cases, the accused is dead, so the claim couldn't move forward anyway.)

NEVER FEAR, the wonderful world of tort law is here! Advocates are now pushing for a change in the civil statute of limitations that would give victims the opportunity to sue for damages even though criminal charges can no longer be brought.

Of course, those familiar with the deep-pocket theory know that the real target of these suits will be the church - even priests who don't take a vow of poverty aren't exactly rolling in dough.

I have a problem with this. In the first place, statutes of limitation were designed to balance the rights of the accuser against the rights of the accused. It's unfair to allow a lawsuit to go forward decades after the alleged offense was committed.

Witnesses die. Records are lost. Testimony evaporates. A defense becomes virtually impossible to mount, but the defendant is still forced to go through the process even if innocent. That's wrong: Victims aren't the only ones entitled to closure.

And why should people be able to bankrupt a church simply to pay for the sins of a small percentage of its members? How many parishes will be forced to close? How many schools shut?

It's a good thing to heal the wounded. But we shouldn't do it on the backs of the innocent. Even if they are associated with giants.

Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer. E-mail


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