Catholic Bishops Should Back Justice for Abuse Victims

By Jack Ruhl
Kalamazoo Gazette [Michigan]
February 7, 2006

Catholic bishops cry out for justice. The Web site for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops includes a very detailed "Social Justice Issues" section. The bishops describe how to achieve justice in 19 different areas, from arms control and debt to Social Security and welfare.

One is struck by the fact that their cries for justice are all directed at the world outside the institutional Catholic Church. To the bishops (with one exception described below), it is the laity, especially businesspeople, politicians and scientists who are responsible for injustice in the world. They overlook the grave injustice that results when young people are sexually abused by Catholic priests, brothers and nuns and neither the abuser nor the church is held accountable. And it's not as if they are unaware of it.

In 2002, church leaders commissioned a study which resulted in the document referred to as the John Jay report. The authors of this report estimate that there were more than 10,000 victims of clergy sexual abuse in the last 50 years. University of Arizona sociologist and Catholic priest Father Andrew Greeley believes this to be a gross understatement. Greeley estimates the number to be closer to 100,000.

Children who are sexually abused by clergy suffer greatly. They may experience a lifetime of low self-esteem and depression and some victims have committed suicide as a result of their abuse. Others experience marital difficulties, while others go on to lives marred by substance abuse. Catholic priest and canon lawyer Father Thomas Doyle has accurately labeled what is done to these young people as "soul murder."

Children who are sexually abused by clergy often don't tell anyone for decades. The recent HBO documentary "Twist of Faith" described what happened to Toledo, Ohio, firefighter Tony Comes when he was a 14-year-old high school student. Father Dennis Gray first befriended Tony and then took the boy to his cottage where he repeatedly molested him. Tony was ashamed and embarrassed, and didn't tell anyone for years. When he was 33 years old, he reported the abuse to the Diocese of Toledo. Church attorneys told him the statute of limitations had expired, and Father Gray was beyond the reach of the law.

Like Tony Comes, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit was abused by a Catholic priest when he was a teenager in the 1940s. It was only this month that Bishop Gumbleton first spoke publicly of his abuse when he urged Ohio lawmakers to change the statute of limitations to allow victims to have their day in court. He is the only American bishop to support such a change.

One might argue that the statute of limitations is in place because memories fade. Clergy sexual abuse is a special case for two reasons. First, victims are ashamed and don't report the crime for many years. Often this is because the abuser convinced the youngster that it is his or her fault, because he/she "led father/brother/sister to sin." Second, memories do not fade. Tony Comes, Bishop Gumbleton and thousands like them remember the details like they occurred yesterday.

Catholic bishops might respond, "Well, we have this new process in place so it never happens again." Bishops responding this way are trying to change the subject from a discussion of justice to a discussion of what they plan to do in the future. Putting processes in place to keep the crime from happening again is not the same as ensuring justice for abuse victims, and the bishops know this.

Justice means that clergy who abuse children go to jail for their crimes, and the Church is held financially liable for making their victims whole.

How can this be done? First Amendment scholar Marci Hamilton calls for the abolition of the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse. Change the law so that a child who is sexually abused by anyone and who does not report the crime for years will still have a chance for justice. Currently in Michigan, the statute of limitations for reporting criminal sexual conduct in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th degrees is 10 years or the victim's 21st birthday, whichever comes later. This statute of limitations should be abolished.

Such a change will not come easily in Michigan. The church hierarchy and their lobbying group, the Michigan Catholic Conference, have so far successfully opposed a change. A current bill to remove time limits is stalled in the House.

It's time for the Catholic bishops to look beyond their narrow self-interest and wholeheartedly support such an initiative. If they expect us to pay attention to what they say about "Social Justice Issues," they had better behave in a just manner themselves.

Jack Ruhl of Kalamazoo is a professor of accountancy in the Haworth College of Business, Western Michigan University.


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