A Path to Justice

The New York Times
January 18, 2006

The Rev. Thomas Gumbleton, an auxiliary bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit, urged lawmakers in Ohio last week to support a bill that would put his church at great risk of embarrassment, shame and financial hardship. The bill would relax the statute of limitations on sexual abuse, granting a one-year window for lawsuits by those whose right to a day in court lapsed long ago. In Ohio and other states, advocates for the victims of abusive priests have supported this path to justice for long-hidden crimes.

The bishop spoke in no official capacity and, among church leaders, he stood alone. Other bishops have lobbied strenuously against such laws, fearing ruinous litigation. They are right to be afraid; a one-year window in California led to about 800 lawsuits, including 500 in Los Angeles. The bills could easily reach hundreds of millions of dollars.

But Bishop Gumbleton's stance is right and just. He spoke not as an administrator but as a priest and, more compellingly, as a victim of abuse himself. Breaking a silence of 60 years, he revealed that he had been groped as a 15-year-old seminarian by a priest who is now dead.

Bishop Gumbleton's actions as a prelate are singular, but his experience as a victim is not. The scandal was years in the making, and longer in the covering up. The church's crimes flourished amid silence and denial, and were abetted by shame, guilt and statutes of limitations. Bishop Gumbleton's account is further evidence that it takes years, if not decades, for sexual abuse victims to come to terms with what was done to them. Abused children often do not speak out until well into their 30's, a time lapse that has conveniently shielded the church for generations. It should not any more.

Bishop Gumbleton's colleagues shudder at having to pay for the sins of dead priests. But it would be easier to sympathize with their predicament if they had acted more uniformly and assertively to comfort and compensate the abused. More than three years after the American bishops resolved to set things right, that goal has not been met. Many dioceses have been less than enthusiastic in urging the victims to come forward, and some still rebuff such complaints. As Bishop Gumbleton pointed out, the continued existence of many hidden abusers and silent victims demands further action.


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