As Calendar Turns, Crisis Remains

National Catholic Reporter [United States]
January 20, 2006

"The church cannot and should not hide behind its lawyers or the law blindly and in all circumstances."

-- The "Bennett Report" on the "Crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States," February 2004

"We who have been given the responsibility of shepherding God's people, will continue to work to restore the bonds of trust that unite us. Words alone cannot accomplish this goal. It will begin with the actions we take in our general assembly and at home in our dioceses and eparchies."

-- U.S. bishops' "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People"

At their general assembly last November, the U.S. Catholic bishops didn't discuss the clergy sex abuse crisis. At least publicly. It may have come up in private, but it's no longer a regular agenda item. The bishops gave no sense of how they're doing in attempting to reestablish "the bonds of trust" that have been so badly damaged. There is no public record of what they said if, indeed, they dealt with it at all.

It is likely that many, and probably most, of the church leaders assembled in that meeting room in Washington believe that they've made great strides in dealing with the crisis. In many ways they have. They've gone from complete denial to developing programs, subjecting themselves to studies and audits (albeit self-reported) and to public scrutiny.

Yet, more than 20 years after the first national story ran in NCR's pages, four years after the most recent explosion of the crisis in Boston, victims remain dissatisfied, the press keeps hounding for more information, prosecutors remain relentless in their pursuit of documents, courts and legislatures appear hostile.

Along comes one of their own, a maverick to be certain, but still one of their own -- and now he wants them to do more. Those who don't appreciate Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton's out-of-the-mainstream views on war and peace and other social justice issues, might discount his latest step as little more than a contrarian move, were in not for the fact that he, too, was a victim of sexual abuse.

Gumbleton is 75 years old and knows what it is to keep a secret for decades, to tell no one that he was abused by someone in authority. He revealed that bit of personal history in Ohio, where he asked the legislature to approve a bill that would open a "window" by extending the statute of limitations to allow civil suits in sex abuse cases up to 35 years after they occurred.

Abuse victims argue that the nature of the crime is such that limitations protect abusers. Children who have been raped or molested by a trusted member of the clergy, they say, are not likely to report that abuse (or even share details of what is often a horrendous experience with family members or counselors) for years.

The bishops in the states considering such measures -- Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland and New York among them -- make three basic points. First, they say, statute of limitations provisions exist for a reason: Memories fade, people die, circumstances and evidence grow hazy over time. Next, the bishops argue, confrontational court proceedings do not lead to the reconciliation and healing they seek.

And, in their more candid moments, the bishops concede that opening the statute of limitations spigot will cost the church a lot of money. Of the latter, they are surely correct. When California legislators loosened their statute of limitations, more than 800 lawsuits were filed against dioceses in that state. Speaking to The Washington Post, the bishops' general counsel, Mark Chopko, put it this way: "But is the just thing basically to make the patrimony or the treasury of the church vulnerable? We do want to assist victims, and encourage healing, and even do some kinds of financial assistance if that's warranted. But the idea that 'let's all go to the mattresses here and fight about this in the law courts' -- we think that's unjust to everybody."

To hear the bishops, who transferred abusers from one parish to another, knowing that they would continue to rape children, appeal to justice is like watching the young man who killed his parents throwing himself on the a court's mercy because he is now an orphan. By its nature a statute of limitation establishes an arbitrary time period. Legislatures, particularly those presented with extraordinary circumstances (such as a conspiracy to conceal child molestation), can amend such laws. Genuine healing is not likely in the vast majority of clergy molestation cases, but it certainly cannot happen without accountability. In the United States, for good or ill, such accountability comes through the justice system. Justice would be served, not violated, if abuse victims got their day in court.

Which brings us to the issue of money, which is really -- discussions of "reconciliation" and "justice" notwithstanding -- at the heart of the matter. Opening up the statute of limitations "may cause pain, embarrassment and sacrifice for our church, especially in the short term," Gumbleton said. "It may cause some hardship for us financially," he continued. "It might seem easier to keep the evils hidden, to move on and trust that the future will be better. But I am convinced that a settlement of every case by our court system is the only way to protect children and to heal the brokenness within the church."

Rarely does anyone equate legal settlement with healing within a Christian community. Quite the contrary, they would more likely be viewed as opposing values. But what is left?

One could argue that placing the treasury of the church in such jeopardy could end up changing the character of the church. Certainly bishops in Washington and Oregon or in Massachusetts could testify to that concern. But the character of the church itself was placed in jeopardy more than 20 years ago when, facing the choice early in the scandals, many bishops walked away from their instincts as pastors and hid behind their lawyers.

The irony, of course, is that that strategic course was taken to protect the church's treasury, its reputation and the high station enjoyed by its priests. The strategy has backfired at every turn.

Gumbleton quoted from the 1971 Synod of Bishops on Justice in the World: "Anyone who ventures to speak to people about justice must first be just in their eyes." He also said, "It's sad the church must be compelled through a court of law to do what it should be doing pastorally."

To act pastorally is to act accountably, with transparency and deep concern for those in your care. All of that has been violated for years in the context of the bishops' handling of the sex abuse crisis. That is why, as the calendar turns another page, the crisis remains with the church. Victims have nothing now but the courts in which to force a reckoning.

Gumbleton has placed himself among them, another voice seeking accountability.


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