|Sister Maureen Turlish Honored for Work on Behalf of Sexual Abuse Victims
By Joe Barron
March 18, 2011
Anger and gratitude mixed in equal measure March 12 when a crowd of disaffected but loyal Catholics gathered at Chestnut Hill College to confront the scandal that has engulfed their church.
They directed their anger at high-ranking clerics in the Philadelphia Archdiocese who, in their view, continue to cover up sexual abuse of children by priests. Their gratitude they saved for Sister Maureen Paul Turlish of Delaware, a nun who has been speaking out for victims’ rights since 2002.
Sister Turlish, the featured speaker at Sugar Loaf Hill on Germantown Avenue, discussed her experiences and encouraged her listeners to contact their state legislators in support of House Bills 878 and 832, which would remove the statute of limitations on child molestation in Pennsylvania and establish a two-year “window” in which victims may file civil suits against those who abused them in the distant past.
“Better criminal and civil statutes will be effective in helping to stop current childhood sexual abuse and preventing future abuse,” Sister Turlish said. “A civil window is the single most effective means of holding sexual predators accountable for their crimes in the past along with any enablers, if they exist.”
Delaware opened its own window for civil suits in 2007 and at the same time repealed the criminal statute of limitations on child molestation, Sister Turlish said.
She helped push for the legislation, testifying before Senate and House judiciary committees in Dover and helping to enlist public support, she said.
Sister Turlish’s appearance was sponsored by the Philadelphia chapter of Voice of the Faithful, a national organization founded in 2002 in response to the church sex abuse scandal, and before her speech, the group presented her with a plaque in appreciation of her efforts.
Also on hand was a group of parents and other relatives of victims of sexual abuse by priests in the Philadelphia Archdiocese, some of which occurred as long ago as the 1950s.
In an unscheduled, impromptu appearance, they approached the podium after Sister Turlish’s speech in a show of support and gratitude.
Charles Gallagher, the former Philadelphia assistant district attorney who served as senior prosecutor for the grand jury that detailed sexual abuse in the archdiocese in a 2005 report, took the microphone for a few explosive minutes, accusing Cardinal Justin Rigali of perpetrating what he called a “cover-up of a cover-up.”
Gallagher said he was speaking as a Catholic, not as a prosecutor, when he called on Rigali to resign. The only way to introduce true accountability into the archdiocese, he continued, is for area Catholics to elect the cardinal’s successor directly.
Sister Turlish disagreed, saying she preferred to have Rigali remain on the “hot seat” in Philadelphia. If he left, she said, he could find himself a comfortable job at the Vatican, just as Cardinal Bernard Law did after the abuse scandal led to his resignation as archbishop of Boston.
“I don’t care where he goes,” Gallagher replied. “Let him go off to Rome and have pizza with Law.”
While she was careful to state that child sexual abuse is not exclusively a Catholic problem, Sister Turlish called on her listeners to hold church officials accountable for what she called an inadequate response to the crisis.
“Yes, unfortunately, there always seem to be ‘Catholic bashers’ around, just as there always seems to be those who are ‘anti-Semitic,’” she said. “But this is one instance where church leadership has caused the crisis of credibility all by themselves …
“What is truly blasphemous and should be deeply offensive to all is that so many children could have been spared a lifetime of agony brought on by sexual abuse but for the callous behavior of enabling church officials who shuffled sexual predators around with abandon, instead of calling the police.”
Sister Turlish’s life as a dissident began, she said, when she was a little girl, Her father was a union organizer, and she remembered walking her first picket line at age 9 or 10 when the workers at the Good ’n’ Plenty candy factory went on strike.
Nothing she saw as a child, however, prepared her for the disillusionment she experienced after speaking with hundreds of survivors of sexual abuse.
“No longer am I the person I used to be, even 10 or 12 years ago,” she said, “and although I cannot compare my loss with the loss suffered by victims of childhood sexual abuse, there is nevertheless, loss. Something has been taken from me, as it has been taken from every member of the people of God. A part of me has died.”
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