Litigating Clergy Sex Abuse

By Darrell Turner
National Catholic Reporter
October 22, 2008


By Timothy D. Lytton

Harvard University Press, 286 pages, $35


By Marci A. Hamilton

Cambridge University Press, 160 pages, $22


By Leon J. Podles

Crossland Press, 675 pages, $22.95

One of the missions of the church is to bring light to the world, but sometimes things work out the other way. This is demonstrated by three recently published books that show how the civil justice system has helped to expose the dark secrets of clergy sexual abuse in the last quarter-century.

Timothy D. Lytton, a professor at Albany School of Law, demonstrates the role of litigation in policymaking in church and society in Holding Bishops Accountable: How Lawsuits Helped the Catholic Church Confront Clergy Sexual Abuse. His book is the most nuanced of the three under consideration here and is careful not to reach conclusions that aren't supported by the evidence he provides. While declaring that litigation made it possible for abuse victims "to hold publicly accountable one of the largest, richest and most powerful institutions in America," he refrains from claiming that lawsuits reduced the rate of clergy sexual abuse and also highlights the role of other forces, such as the media.

Professor Lytton shows how litigation helped to open the secret archives of several dioceses that documented the suffering of hundreds of abuse victims, exposed these sins to the light of day, and pressured both the church and law enforcement officials to take allegations of clergy sexual abuse seriously. He quotes Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany, N.Y., as having said the case of Louisiana priest Gilbert Gauthe in the 1980s gave prelates a deeper appreciation of the harm experienced by victims and put them on notice that if they didn't do something effective to protect the community against priestly predators, "you were opening yourself up to major liability."

Although the U.S. bishops adopted a "zero tolerance" policy toward clergy sexual abuse in 2002, Professor Lytton says litigation continues to perform a role in exposing noncompliance with the policy in several dioceses. "While it will take a lot more than lawsuits to fix this problem, litigation has been a good start," he writes.

One way to make litigation more effective would be to reduce or eliminate the statute of limitations for civil cases involving child sexual abuse. This reform is championed by Marci A. Hamilton, professor of public law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. She has testified before several state legislatures on behalf of such changes, which would acknowledge that it frequently takes several decades for child abuse victims to understand, acknowledge and go public with their experiences.

Professor Hamilton helped to persuade the Delaware Legislature to adopt a retroactive abolition of the civil statute of limitations in 2007 and issues a clarion call for such moves in Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children. Unfortunately, the book's tone is more like that of a talk-show host than what one might expect from a law professor and often makes sweeping generalizations unaccompanied by supporting evidence.

Professor Hamilton portrays opponents of her stance as defending abusers rather than children, presumes guilt before trial in saying that defense attorneys "represent those who have committed the crime or the tort" and charges that the American Civil Liberties Union's "focus on old-fashioned civil liberties" tends to make it sympathetic to perpetrators' interest in shorter statutes of limitations. She goes over the top in charging that "the United States has structured itself to date in a way that subverts the interests of children."

Such rhetoric is unfortunate in a book that has a legitimate argument to make and that demonstrates the unfortunate fact that "the major player trying to block such reform to date is the Roman Catholic hierarchy."

Leon J. Podles, a former federal investigator, advocates abolition of the civil statute of limitations and other reforms in the civil justice system and the church in his massive book Sacrilege: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church. His carefully documented work shows how both conservative views of the elevated, protected role of the clergy and liberal advocacy of sexual expression, including relations between adults and children, helped to create an atmosphere in which abuse could continue without any effective challenges.

Dr. Podles draws on psychological studies that suggest that pedophiles feel a need to control other people because they are not in control of themselves. For this reason, a priest who rapes minors "does not feel he is doing anything wrong because he is the victim and he is angry -- at God, the world, society -- for having made him different."

The author also discusses obstacles to dealing with such men by a process under which a priest could make appeals to Rome for years -- which may have led some bishops to believe that pursuing such matters wasn't worth the time and effort -- and an atmosphere in many parishes in which families who complained about priestly predators have been viciously denounced by supporters of "Father Joe."

While lamenting the repeated lies of both priests and bishops about abuse cases and the look-the-other-way attitude of Pope John Paul II, Dr. Podles finds hope in Pope Benedict XVI's measures to speed up the trials of accused abusers when he was a cardinal and in taking action against Br. Gino Burresi, founder of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ. The author writes that Benedict lets all know that "no one is immune from discipline, not even the founders of successful religious orders."

One regrettable feature of Dr. Podles' book is his detailed descriptions of abuse cases in quasi-pornographic detail in the first nine chapters. He defends this as a way of demonstrating the suffering of the victims and the need for strong measures for abusers, but this seems questionable. One need not describe various methods of torture in gory detail to make a case for its abolition.

Despite the horrific nature of clergy sexual abuse described in his book and the other two discussed here, Dr. Podles explains how he can remain a Catholic. Any religion can become corrupt, he says. "Attacking sexual abuse is not attacking the Catholic church, but is seeking to hold it to its own standards of justice and mercy and love."


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