Abuse Cover-Up in Schools Seen As Church's Deep Pockets Targeted

By Wayne Laugesen
National Catholic Register
July 6, 2006

[See also Abuse Crackdown Gives Some Religious Institutions a Pass, by Wayne Laugesen, National Catholic Register (7/6/06).]

Los Angeles (National Catholic Register) In the minds of parents, abuse of children is always a crime, no matter who does it and where. But some lawmakers and the media seem determined to ignore some abuse.

When a federal report, ordered by Congress and chartered by the U.S. Department of Education, exposed rampant sexual abuse in public schools throughout the country, politicians and the mainstream secular press corps all but ignored it. Though the media ran daily stories about old allegations involving Catholics, the federal report estimated that 422,000 California public school students would be victims of sexual misconduct by educators before graduation a number dwarfing the state's entire Catholic school enrollment of 143,000.

By contrast, during the first half of 2002, the 61 largest newspapers in California ran 1,744 stories about sexual abuse in Catholic institutions, referring almost entirely to decades-old allegations. During the same period, those newspapers ran four stories about federally exposed sexual abuse in public schools.

Plaintiffs' attorneys have introduced legislation to remove statutes of limitations in at least 17 states. Connecticut, Illinois, Ohio and Kansas have already extended their statutes of limitation to facilitate suits against the church. Martin Nussbaum, a Colorado attorney who defends churches, said it's unclear whether Colorado's defeat of such bills will catch on in other states.

"If sexual abuse of minors is so grievous and it most certainly is why should its punishment be harsh for Catholic and other private institutions, but soft for public schools where it occurs more frequently?" asked Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, in an article for First Things magazine. "Ironically, most current state laws hold public schools and institutions less accountable precisely because citizens pay taxes for them. That makes no sense."

Downplaying Abuse

The scant media attention given to the federal report included stories and commentary geared to dismiss the report's findings. "No Panic Over School Child Abuse" was the headline of one article, which instructed parents to rest easy.

The author, Wendy McElroy, said the report, authored by Hofstra University Professor Carol Shakeshaft, defines sexual abuse in "an extremely broad manner" that includes "physical, verbal, or visual" behavior by an educator ranging from sexual intercourse to inappropriate jokes.

McElroy is a researcher for the Independent Institute in California and for and an atheist.

Her essay fails to mention, however, that the study clearly delineates those numbers pertaining to "physical" misconduct from other forms of misconduct, and concludes that 7 percent of public-school students nationwide report "physical" sexual abuse.

The article shows the extent to which abuse of children is accepted in the secular world when it quotes University of Connecticut professor of English and feminist theory Gina Barreca, author of The Erotics of Instruction, a collection of essays about the role of desire and attraction in education.

"I want to know why all of a sudden we are so hysterical about this. What does this new concern reflect?" Barreca asked in the article. "Because these impulses have been there since Socrates! So this sudden focus on it really seems to be a deflection of a larger series of fears."

Speaking with the National Catholic Register, Barreca declined to dismiss as hysteria the publicity and legislation inspired by sexual abuse allegations involving Catholics. She did point out that the problem of abuse of children is pervasive.

"Society has sexualized children so entirely, that the culture has decided 13-year-old girls are the essential beauty in the universe," Barreca said. "That's why so many adults are having sex with children."

Attorney Nussbaum said recent data show the church as arguably the safest institution for children. A John Jay College study, commissioned by U.S. bishops, found more than 300 instances of sexual abuse of children in Catholic institutions every year from 1968 through 1980. The study showed that by the mid-1990s, however, sexual abuse occurrences dropped to fewer than 50 per year.

"While even one instance is too many, 50 such instances for institutions serving 70 million Catholics is, when compared to other institutions working with kids, extraordinarily good," Nussbaum said.

Nussbaum told the National Catholic Register that biased press coverage led plaintiffs' attorneys in California to see the Catholic sexual abuse hysteria as a gold mine. He said lawyers wanted to sue but had a problem in finding current victims. Statutes of limitations prevented victims with old complaints from suing. Therefore, the plaintiffs' lawyers lobbied successfully for a bill that eliminated the statute for one year.

"Some of the claims we're defending in California are 75 years old," Nussbaum said. "Witnesses have died, memories have faded, and evidence has eroded."

To date, settlements involving 200 claims have cost California Catholic institutions $250 million and have put $100 million into lawyers' pockets.

Colorado nearly passed a law identical to California's, but it failed after the Archdiocese of Denver, Nussbaum and the Colorado Catholic Conference demanded that any lifting of the statute of limitations be done in such a way that public schools could also be sued for old allegations.

The leading Colorado bill was introduced and promoted by Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald.

"Joan Fitz-Gerald's attitude made it hard to believe she had in mind anything other than maximum legal injury to the church," said State Sen. Shawn Mitchell R-Broomfield, a Mormon and an attorney who fought to defeat the Colorado bills.

Nussbaum said targeting the church reflects a "perfect storm" phenomenon, in which several variables have combined to enhance anti-Catholic hostility.

"No. 1, the church is perceived by the plaintiffs' bar as having deep pockets," Nussbaum said. "It doesn't have deep financial resources, but in terms of real estate you could say it has deep pockets."

Secondly, Nussbaum said, some members of the mainstream media have deep-seated issues regarding church teachings on sex outside of marriage, homosexuality and celibacy.

"They see any sexual abuse in the church as affirmation of their beliefs," Nussbaum said. "They believe that church teachings on sexuality lead to sexual abuse. Others simply share a well-known and deep-seated animus toward all things Catholic, and that's a part of our culture. All of this has come together to create the perfect storm of legislation and litigation."

While all of it may be difficult for Catholics and the church, Mitchell says it's far worse than that. He fought the Colorado bills because he viewed them as a threat to American justice.

"This kind of legislation distorts our principles and our system of justice by targeting a particular defendant," Mitchell said. "These laws tie the hands of the targeted defendants behind their backs and ensure victory for plaintiffs. If we change the system in this manner for every alleged demon on the legal landscape, we will trade a system of justice for a system of bounties."

Wayne Laugesen, who writes from Boulder, Colo., is a National Catholic Register correspondent.


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