The Bishop As Victim

Toledo Blade [Ohio]
January 20, 2006

AUXILIARY Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit may not win friends and influence people in high places in the Roman Catholic Church, but he will impress many sitting in the pews with his profile in courage.

The 75-year-old prelate traveled to Columbus to testify on behalf of pending Ohio legislation that would expand sexual abuse victims' right to sue their alleged abusers. But Bishop Gumbleton did more than lend support to victims, he revealed himself to be among them.

He may be the first U.S. bishop to go public with his own story of sexual abuse, a shameful secret he kept for 60 years.

He was a 15-year-old seminary student when he was sexually abused, the bishop said, by a diocesan priest. Bishop Gumbleton said he never spoke to anyone about the inappropriate touching by the priest and tried to block it from his mind.

Even six decades later the senior church leader says he's embarassed to talk about the molestation and still blames himself for letting it happen.

But his lingering reluctance to personally acknowledge and publicly share still painful memories is exactly the point of his testimony to Ohio legislators.

Because it is so difficult for victims of sexual abuse to disclose the crime committed against them — often decades old — the statute of limitations on lawsuits relating to sexual abuse by clergy must be expanded.

Ohio is not alone in attempting to loosen its legal deadline for filing lawsuits involving sexual abuse by clergy. Similar efforts are under way in Pennyslvania, New York, and half a dozen other states.

In 2003 California lifted the time limit on lawsuits relating to sexual abuse and more than 800 accusers filed suit. The development mobilized church hierarchy to vigorously fight relazation of the statute of limitations on civil suits in the interest of self-preservation.

The clergy scandal has already cost the church more than $1 billion in settlements in addition to providing counseling and care for victims and priests as well as prevention programs.

The financial strain of settling victims' claims forced three dioceses, Portland, Tucson, and Spokane, to file for bankruptcy. In Boston, home of some of the most high profile cases of clergy abuse, the archdiocese had to close dozens of parishes it could no longer afford to support.

The Catholic Conference of Ohio and its counterpart in Michigan were sympathetic to Bishop Gumbleton's emotional trauma but maintained that litigation so long after the fact does not help healing.

Speaking only for himself, Bishop Gumbleton says Ohio's proposed one-year, one-time lifting of legal deadlines to allow those with claims of abuse to sue — even 35 years after the fact — provides an opportunity for the church to deal directly with its past and restore its credibility on moral issues.

Ohio's Senate unanimously concurred with the bishop's stance and its approved bill awaits a vote by the House Judiciary Committee.

Bishop Gumbleton is known for his activism on liberal causes, engaging in fasts, prayer vigils, and acts of civil disobedience. But this campaign is personal.


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