Money is the least of what the church has to lose

The Day [New London CT]

December 26, 2021

By Lisa McGinley

This was the year that the Diocese of Norwich filed for bankruptcy because church officials and lawyers recognized that dozens of alleged victims of clergy sexual abuse are in a position to make their claims in civil court. If they win their individual cases, they could be awarded compensation for injury inflicted years ago by priests who were allowed to get away with it.

No one is charging that the current leadership of the diocese has any personal connection to what happened decades back, but as successors to those who were in charge at the time, they represent the institution.

For a pastoral institution that preaches justice, mercy and repentance to be defending itself against any legitimate claim by any former young Catholic shows how internally conflicted the church can be. On the one hand, the church preaches the need to own up to one’s sins. On the other, it lawyers up, because each individual diocese and parish is a corporation that can be sued under the law of the land. The fear is that damages awarded under civil law could strip the diocese of resources for other purposes. The tactic is not working well; legal fees have gobbled up hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A lot of lifelong Catholics are finding that hard to take. Although they may never have known about or suspected that abuse was happening, many are of an age to shudder and realize, “That could have been me, or my brother.” I have done that.

The non-financial cost has been mounting for decades: loss of innocence, loss of trust, loss of faith, loss of credibility for the church as a moral teacher on other subjects and, ultimately, loss of Catholics. In terms of spirituality and human relationships, the money is the least of of what the church has lost and stands to lose.

It would be a radical response for this diocese or any other to sell what it has and give to the poor — in this case, to victims of proven harm. And yet that has a familiar ring.

The Norwich diocese has paid damages on pevious claims but now is in a purely defensive stance. It can’t do anything that would increase its liability if it wants to control the damage. A bankruptcy filing seeks damage control. Bankruptcy also potentially hurts victims all over again, not only by limiting compensation but by treating them as legal adversaries, not beloved and suffering members of a community that is sorry for their pain.

Think how they must feel. If any other institution were in the position the diocese is in, one might expect the church to defend those who suffer against those who fail to protect them. After all, the church reaches out to refugees, the homeless, the hungry, and those unjustly treated.

But the Catholic Church hierarchy, particularly in the United States, continues to react defensively to claims of clergy sexual abuse. Yes, there are now strict policies to weed out potential abusers in church jobs and volunteer roles, and procedures for reporting new claims. Those make it unlikely that any abuser or his supervisor will be sweeping any new allegations under a rug. But an apology for adult victims of past abuse seems unlikely.

Here’s a fact and a suggestion: The Catholic Church is not made up only of clergy employed by the corporation. Catholics who deplore the treatment of victims and have no legal involvement in the business of the diocese can express solidarity with victims. They can stand by them during their lawsuits. They could set up funds to help those who need healing and aren’t getting it from the global church. They could say, to their faces, we feel your pain; we know it could have just as easily been us.

Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day Editorial Board.