In Alabama, ‘archaic’ laws fail Catholic child sex abuse victims
By Christopher Harress
November 19, 2018
Mark Belenchia remembers the day when he first set eyes on the new Catholic priest in the small Mississippi Delta town of Shelby. It was 1968 at the time and he was 13 years-old.
“He turned up without his collar on at a baseball game I was playing in,” said Belenchia from his home in Jackson, Mississippi. “He was different from the stuffy priests we were used to. Charismatic, like a breath of fresh air.”
“That was Rev. [Bernard] Haddican’s first day on the job. The day he began to groom us.”
While Belenchia’s story takes place in Mississippi, his position as an advocate for sex abuse victims has put him in touch with people from across his home state, Alabama and other parts of the country. He has heard the full scale of sexual abuse against children dating back decades. He has heard grown men cry over the phone as they, for the first time, explain what happened to them. Many of it decades before.
Now, with the expected release of a list naming priests and other clergy accused of sexually abusing children over the last 50 years in parts of Alabama and Mississippi, Belenchia is preparing himself for more heartbreaking calls.
“I want to be there for people as much as I can,” said Belenchia, who is an advocate for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) . “but the sad truth is that for most of them time has run out.”
Belenchia, now 63, says that any list released by the dioceses will see people come forward with claims against the church and priests, but he fears that they will run into the same issues he did when attempting to find justice: the statute of limitations.
Those laws, which limit the amount of time a person has before taking civil and criminal action against an individual or entity, vary from state to state. In Alabama, the civil statute for sexual abuse claims is one of the most limiting and shortest in the country, according to Belenchia.
In childhood sexual abuse cases in Alabama, a person who was a child victim has up until two years from their 19th birthday to make a claim, according to state statutes.
This, according to one prominent attorney, is unacceptable and must be changed.
“The best remedy is for the Alabama legislature to realize who they want to protect,” said Missouri-based attorney Jeff Anderson, who first started representing catholic child abuse survivors in 1983 and has represented thousands of victims in dozens of states. “The choice is simple, do your laws stand for the offenders and those who protect them or the people who have been horrifically abused as children and will likely go to their graves without their pain being acknowledged in a court.”
A legal mechanism known as a civil window, which Anderson has fought for over many decades as an attorney, offers a timeframe for victims to come forward and make their claims. It bypasses regular state laws and offers what Anderson described as a “glimmer of hope.” Hawaii, Minnesota and Delaware have in the past offered civil windows that ranged from two to three years, meaning if you were abused you had an opportunity to at least attempt a claim.
Outside of those windows few survivors have a real chance of restitution. In Connecticut a victim has up until their 48th birthday to file, representing one of the most flexible civil statute laws in the country. In Pennsylvania that age is 30, according to Anderson. It’s unclear if the Alabama legislature has ever considered such a window or a relaxing of the civil statute of limitation laws.
In some states there is a legal provision known as the discovery rule, which in simple terms extends the statute of limitations to the point when the victim first realized they had been abused or first began to experience the emotional and psychological trauma relating to the abuse, which for many abuse victims is well into adulthood, according to advocates. This is often known as repressed memory, and the Supreme Court of Alabama does not recognize it, according to National Conference of State Legislators, a Washington D.C.-based, bipartisan group that exists to strengthen state laws.
Belenchia, who first talked about the abuse he suffered as a 16-year-old, didn’t approach the Jackson dioceses about what had happened to him until he was 48-years-old. “I lived with it for all those years,” he said. “I was told I was an anomaly and that they had never heard of anything like this happening anywhere else. I signed a non-disclosure agreement and they gave me $40,000.”
“I was still being manipulated decades later,” said Belenchia, who said that it was Mobile-born bishop William R. Houck who essentially covered up the abuse he suffered in Jackson. “I was in a crisis and Houck, who the Vicar General at the time didn’t do a damn thing. I was worth nothing to them. He said he prayed for me every night.”
Houck died in March 2016, according to Jackson Diocese records.
While abuse had been reported at dioceses all over the country for many decades, it wasn’t until 2002 that Catholic sexual abuse perpetrated against what investigators say are thousands of children started to seem like a national coverup. A critical and wide-ranging investigation by the Boston Globe found large scale abuse and coverup by the then Archbishop of Boston Cardinal Bernard Law, who interestingly spent more than 10 years as a priest in the same Mississippi diocese when Belenchia was abused by Rev. Haddican, according to Law’s biography.
Decades later, three brothers filed a sexual abuse suit against a different priest in the Jackson Diocese, again when Cardinal Law was present. Belenchia, who was legally bound not to talk about the abuse he suffered, came forward and filed a separate suit regardless. He was denied as the statute of limitations in Mississippi had expired. The three brothers, known as the Morrison brothers, had their case thrown out by the Supreme Court of Mississippi in 2005 because it was discovered that their father was told about the abuse in 1973. Therefore the discovery provision was not possible. The Jackson diocese later settled out of court with multiple victims for more than $5 million.
Cardinal Law resigned as the Archbishop of Boston in Dec. 2002 and within weeks moved to Rome where he was made the Archpriest of a small sinecure that included only ceremonial duties. Many claimed at the time the move was designed to shield Law from potential criminal prosecution as the new position came with it Vatican citizenship. The Vatican has no extradition treaty with the United States. Regardless, no criminal charges were brought against Law.
In Mobile, mid-90s lawsuits against Father Cordell Lang of the McGill-Toolen school and Father Nelson B. Ziter were dismissed because of the statutes of limitations, according to court filings. Lang was accused of engaging in sex acts with a 14 year-old in the late 80s, while Ziter was also accused of sexually abusing a minor in the 70s. The former Archbishop of Mobile Oscar Lipscomb was named in both suits.
“These laws are often archaic and cause serious difficulties for survivors, especially since most were abused as children and are only able to confront what happened to them and come forward about their abuse many, many years into the future,” said Zach Hiner, the Executive Director of SNAP. “Often, the best way for those who were victimized in the past and to have their day in court is through the opening of a civil window, but that has proved difficult for many state legislatures to accept and act on. We believe that there should be no statutes of limitations on felony sex crimes.”
Under criminal law, there is some hope for recourse. The statute of limitations for abusing a child under the age of 16 is unlimited, however, the burden of proof for criminal law is far greater than for civil, noted Anderson. But because of the many years that have often passed since the abuses took place, it’s possible that some of the abused and the accused have died.
Many District Attorneys in the north east of the country have cases open against priests that have been named as abusers, according to Hiner. In recent weeks, the Orleans Parish District Attorney in Louisiana began to take a critical look at a 57-name list of clergy and priests accused of child sex abuse. Mobile’s District Attorney Ashley Rich has yet to comment on whether her office will take any interest in the names on the list, which a staff member for the Archdioceses of Mobile said would likely take weeks and not months to produce.
Attorney generals in Kentucky, Illinois, Nebraska, New York, New Mexico, Missouri, have launched investigations into widespread abuses by the Catholic church. Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall told reporters in September that his office could only become involved if the abuses were reported at the local level and if there was new evidence that had not been investigated in the past.
Mobile Archbishop Thomas Rodi, who said he would not formally make comment on the list until it is released, said in an email to AL.com that “preparations to publish the list continues” and that a recent Vatican decision to halt refrain on voting to decide on how to solve the child sex abuse issues in the United States “will not interfere with the publication of this list.” He added: “as far as criminal or civil actions, that is independent of the publication of the list. There would be no way to determine if plaintiffs or civil authorities would take such actions.”
While Mobile and Alabama have been largely removed from the Catholic child sex abuse scandals that have engulfed dioceses all across the country, specifically in the north east where federal investigations are in full swing, there are some historical accusations of abuse against children.
Among the hard to locate historical court filings and scant newspaper clippings that appear to be the sum of more than 50 years of alleged abuses that have occurred in the Port City and further afield in the Yellowhammer state, there is a paper trail.
Back in 2004, the Archdioceses of Mobile admitted that 13 of its clergy had been accused of sexual abuse with 18 children dating back to the 1950s. At the time the diocese reported that approximately $700,000 had been paid out in settlements and other costs.
Only one person with a connection to Mobile has been specifically jailed for sexual abuse during that 50 year span. Nichollas Paul Bendillo, who was a counselor and educator at McGill-Toolen high school from 1959 until 1998, served 28 months after being convicted of enticing a child for immoral purposes and one count of second-degree sex abuse, according to previous AL.com reporting. He convinced students they had a sexual disorder and insisted they submit to his sexual desires as a form or treatment.
The sentences for which he received five years and one year, respectively, ran concurrently. He was later charged with four more counts of enticing a child and four counts of second-degree sex abuse. He received the same sentence for each charge as before, which again ran concurrently. Had the charges not run concurrently he would have faced 30 years in prison. Mobile Deacon Robert L. Nouwen was sentenced to six years on child pornography charges, according to reports from 2013. The sentencing judge also mentioned that Nouwen had admitted raping two boys, but was not tried for either incident.
In addition, Father James Havens, who resigned from St. Vincent de Paul in 2013, was accused of an improper relationship with a female minor in 1989.
Former Mobile District Attorney John Tyson Jr. investigated four further priests after accusations of abuse, but none were charged. Today, only one priest that has been accused of the sexual abuse of a child continues to operate in the dioceses of Mobile. Jonny Savoie was accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a male minor in the early 2000s. Today he serves an active pastor at Mobile’s Saint Pius X Catholic Parish.
Paul Mones, a Los Angeles-based attorney who has represented Catholic sex child abuse victims nationwide, said in an interview that one of the reason Alabama appears to have flown under the radar is because people are simply unaware of how widespread the abuses might be.
“I know the state of Alabama is interested in protecting victims of sexual abuse and the laws are very stringent on punishing perpetrators of sexual abuse against children,” Mones said. “But the Catholic church has not acted within in the traditions it espouses of giving care and compassion to those that need it most, because if they did they wouldn’t have waited decades to release the names, long after the statute of limitations had expired and many of the priests had died.”