Seeking Justice
New York State Needs a Tougher Law for Dealing with Sexually Abusive Clergy

Albany Times Union [Albany NY]
April 15, 2003

The removal of two more priests from active ministry in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany further underscores the inability of the state to adequately respond to a widening scandal of the sexual abuse of children. Here's the Rev. Sean McMahon, for example, banished from the priesthood and reduced to, at most, a monastic life of penance within the church for abusing a child sometime in the 1970s. He does not dispute his sin, and what should be a crime.

The outrage here, after the Rev. McMahon, a longtime priest at Sacred Heart Church in Cairo, Greene County, has been finally disciplined by his church, is that secular authorities can't punish him as well. The five-year statute of limitations on sexual abuse has long passed.

The other priest, temporarily removed from the ministry is the Rev. John F. Connolly, a roving assistant pastor and former principal at Cardinal McCloskey High School in Albany. He disputes the allegations made by two different people of sexually abusing them in the 1970s. He's been placed on administrative leave pending further investigation by the diocesan Sexual Misconduct Panel.

It's by no means atypical of these cases that the Rev. McMahon's victim, and the Rev. Connolly's accusers, have waited three decades to come forward. Such is the pain and the shame of being sexually violated, and by someone who commands the authority of a priest no less.

The law needs to be changed to reflect that. The statute of limitations needs to be extended. The time it takes for a victim to come forward should not amount, as it so often does, to cover for the perpetrators of sexual crimes.

A bill proposed in the Legislature earlier this year addresses that, to some extent. State Sen. Thomas Duane, D-Manhattan, would allow criminal charges to be filed within eight years of a sexual assault case instead of the current five years -- or eight years, rather than five years, after a victim turns 18.

Such a law wouldn't impose criminal penalties in this particular case. But it would make it easier, perhaps, to bring others to secular justice. Certainly a tougher law would be a welcome admission by the state government that sexual abusers are so rarely rehabilitated and so frequently strike again and again.

Outrage, though, begets further outrage. The others in the Legislature aren't inclined to give serious consideration to Mr. Duane's bill. To them, it will be enough to require members of the clergy to report cases of sexual abuse, just as teachers and social workers and members of similar professions are.

The evidence of the extent of scandal goes so much further, though. In the Albany diocese, it has meant paying out $2.3 million to sexual abuse victims since Bishop Howard Hubbard assumed his position in 1977. Sixteen priests have been removed because of such allegations since the 1970s. Yet it's still unknown how many victims, or alleged victims, have come forward during the past year to report cases of sexual abuse by priests.

It's in the interests of those victims, to protect them and spare them from further pain, that New York needs to make the statute of limitations in cases of sexual assault applicable to what must always be regarded as a crime.


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