Why Is the Catholic Church Lobbying against Statute of Limitations Reform?

Why Is the Catholic Church Lobbying against Statute of Limitations Reform? July 6, 2016

I converted to Catholicism in college. I had grown up in an evangelical home, and Catholicism offered me a new way to view the Bible and gave me a sense of history and richness. In a turbulent time for me, it allowed me to retain my faith. Today, I am no longer religious, but this is not the fault of the Church. Rather, a series of unrelated events shook my fundamental belief in the supernatural. Still, I’ve always retained some affinity for the Catholic tradition. This affinity serves as the backdrop for my increasing disappointment with how the church is handling child sexual abuse and reforms designed to protect children.

I didn’t become a Catholic until several years after the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal first broke in 2002. I didn’t really look into it at the time, or when I converted. I assumed the Catholic Church had made some mistakes—as many intuitions have over the years—and that it had paid for those mistakes and fixed its policies. I was under the impression that child sexual abuse would be taken seriously by the Church going forward, and that its policies had been updated and corrected. Or perhaps I just wanted to believe this—or needed to. Over the past several months, though, I’ve increasingly become convinced that I was wrong, and that children growing up in the Catholic Church today may be no more safe than those growing up in the Catholic Church decades ago.

If you are a victim of child sexual abuse in New York State, you have until age 23 to file a lawsuit against your abuser. That’s it. You can’t decide, at age 24, that you’re finally at a place where you feel like you can report and prosecute your abuser. You can’t decide, at age 37, that you need to make sure your abuser doesn’t hurt other children. This is called a “statute of limitations,” and while New York State has one of the shortest, many other states have strongly curtailed statute of limitations for child sexual abuse as well. Victims’ rights groups have been working for some time to enact statute of limitation reform, but when doing so they’ve frequently been blocked by an important lobby—the Catholic Church—which has spent millions lobbying against statute of limitations reform.

And it’s not just lobbying. In some cases, Catholic state lawmakers who vote for statute of limitation reform have found themselves chastised by their priests or called out publicly in their local parish newsletters. Various Catholic leaders and groups have taken out ads and written articles urging churchgoers to oppose statute of limitation reform and calling such reform “agenda-ridden.” Bill Donohue of the Catholic League recently took out a full page ad in the Albany Times-Union denouncing state of limitation reform in New York State. Why? Because, he claimed, the bill was actually designed to target Catholics, not to protect children.



I have been increasingly dismayed as I’ve read about the Church’s efforts to fight statute of limitation reform. The Church has a victim complex that could reach from here to the moon, and is clearly putting its reputation—and finances—before the wellbeing of both victims and children at risk of being victimized in the present. That this church could also claim that Jesus loves the little children, while playing fast and loose with those children’s wellbeing, is boggling.

I’m going to illustrate some of this by going down Donohue’s ad point-by-point.


On May 3-4, activists will descend on Albany pressing to lift the statute of limitations on the sexual abuse of minors. Their motives are not pure: their real goal is to stick it to Catholics.

If the lawmakers and activists behind this effort were sincere, they wouldn’t devote an entire day, May 4, to the Catholic Church. Had they chosen to address sexual abuse among Orthodox Jews—and no one else— it would properly be labeled anti-Semitic. That is why this stunt smacks of anti-Catholicism.

Oh I don’t know maybe they’re focusing on the Catholic Church because it was revealed in the early 2000s that the Catholic Church had spent decades covering up child sexual abuse allegations and moving pedophile priests from parish to parish with no attempt to notify parents that their children were at risk. It’s worth noting that the Catholic Church is a lot bigger in the U.S. than is the Orthodox Jewish church, which means there are a greater number of victims and a larger number of children at risk.

Because of sovereign immunity, the public schools are exempt from proposed revisions in the law. To wit: Unless a proposed law explicitly states that the revisions apply equally to the public and private sectors, it means public school victims have only 90 days to bring suit. For private school victims [read: Catholic], they could sue for offenses that occurred decades ago. Get the point?

If this is true—and given that I’ve seen articles saying this extends the statute of limitations for those abused by teachers, I am skeptical—the solution is to ask lawmakers not to make any exemptions, not to lobby against the bill and denounce it as an anti-Catholic plot. Perhaps Donohue would be able to more effectively lobby for statute of limitations reform in the public schools if he weren’t simultaneously lobbying against statute of limitations reform in the Catholic Church and other private entities. Just a thought.

Even if the playing field were equal in law, there is no organized effort to target the public schools the way Catholic schools are. Consider, for example, the groups invited to speak on May 4. Here are some fast facts:

—One of them is known for advising its supporters how to manipulate the media with “holy childhood photos,” using “feeling” words. It is also known for lying to the media (its leader admitted this under oath). Another official even said that accused priests should not have equal rights.

—An official from a second group has made unsubstantiated charges against the leaders of the Church. How do I know? Because I have repeatedly asked for proof, yet none has ever been provided. This same outfit goes public with the names of accused priests, yet it makes no attempt to confirm the veracity of allegations. Innocent priests are therefore smeared.

—Another group is so extremist that one bishop excommunicated its members. After they appealed to Rome, the Vatican confirmed their excommunication. This is not exactly an everyday occurrence.

These persons are not reasoned critics: they are professional victims’ activists who trot around the nation to promote their hate-filled agenda. That some are funded by Church-suing lawyers is incontestable. Even worse is the invidious stereotype inviting the public to think that the Church owns this problem, and that no reforms have been made.

Wait wait wait. Donohue thinks the fact that one unnamed group was excommunicated by the organization they’re serving as whistleblowers for is evidence that they’re . . . extremist? Does he realize how little sense that makes? Also, he does realize that he doesn’t have the right to personally demand “proof” of allegations when he’s already made it clear that he views such allegations as anti-Catholic attacks? Perhaps those in the second group are waiting for the statute of limitations to be extended so that they can try the cases they have in court. And finally, as for the first group, there’s nothing insidious about using childhood photos to make sure child sexual abuse allegations hit home.

But let’s imagine for a moment that we grant that all of these groups are agenda-pushers that care only about taking the church down, and not about protecting children or finding justice. Why would their support for statute of limitation reform provide Donohue with a reason to oppose it? If statute of limitation reform is a bad thing, it’s a bad thing because of what is in the bill, not because of who is promoting the bill. This should be patently obvious.

On May 4, there will be a showing of the movie “Spotlight”; it accurately portrays the misdeeds of the Boston Archdiocese. But it is being used for propaganda purposes to convince the public that nothing has changed, when, in fact, much has: dramatic, and successful, reforms have been implemented in all Catholic institutions. In fact, almost all the abuse took place between 1965 and 1985.

Okay so I’ve seen Spotlight, and there was abuse highlighted in that film that took place in the 1990s. There are also still priests being busted for child porn, etc., today. Also, a big part of the point of Spotlight was that regardless of when the abuse in question occurred, there were pedophiles living out in the community and no one had any idea that any of them were a threat. One of the Spotlight team members learns that a “treatment center” for pedophile priests is located around the corner from his home, and completely freaks out, because he has children.

But also, the timeline of Spotlight is very clear. No one watching it could fail to know that the movie is set in the year 2001. Besides, given that the Catholic Church is still opposing statute of limitation reform (see Donohue’s very ad), and given that the Vatican is still advising bishops that it is not their responsibility to report child sexual abuse to the authorities (this is in fact the case), I’m going to suggest that showing Spotlight may be a very good idea indeed. After all, it gives people an idea of how far the Catholic Church has proven itself willing to go in covering up abuse, and how little care it has given to protecting children.

After all, if the Catholic Church has indeed changed, as Donohue insists, let it show this change by supporting statute of limitation reform!

When this story broke in 2002, I was quoted in the New York Times saying, “I will not defend the indefensible.” But I hasten to add that I will also not defend those who seek to exploit this issue to serve their agenda.

In other words, Donohue won’t defend pedophile priests, but he will fight statute of limitations reform if people he doesn’t like are supporting it. Okay then. Nice support for children’s safety you’re showing there.

According to Dr. Paul McHugh, former psychiatrist in chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital, “Nobody is doing more to address the tragedy of sexual abuse of minors than the Catholic Church.”

Okay, so I looked McHugh up, and I learned that he is an extremely devout practicing Catholic who is also anti-trans, against marriage equality, and pro “family values,” which tends to be a buzz word for traditional family norms. He was chosen by the Catholic Church to be on a panel looking into child abuse allegations in 2002, the year the scandal broke, and there was some controversy over that decision, given that McHugh had a history not of treating sexual abuse victims but rather of defending those accused of sexual abuse.

Color me skeptical.

In the past ten years, the average number of credible accusations made against 40,000 priests is 8.4. Which means that in any given year, less than 1 percent of priests nationwide have had a credible accusation made against him. Who can beat that record?

It is in the public schools where this problem is most acute today.

—“NYC Public Schools See Record Number of Complaints Against Staffers.” That was the headline in a Daily News story on January 6, 2016.

—In 2013, it was reported that school officials in New York City tried to fire 128 employees for molestation, yet only 33 were terminated.

—In 2012, a report covering the previous five years found that 97 tenured teachers or school employees were charged with sexual abuse of students.

What accounts for this condition? Here is a Daily News headline from 2015: “UFT to Blame for Keeping Perverts in City Schools: Chancellor Walcott.” They may not call them “rubber rooms” any more, but nothing has fundamentally changed.

This may be one of the most epic moments of blame shifting I’ve ever seen.

For someone supposedly so very religious, Donohue doesn’t seem to know his Bible. Matthew 7:3 reads as follows: “Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye?” And frankly, this is exactly what he is doing here. “What about those people over there?” he says. “Why are you picking on me when those people are doing bad things too?!” The lack of ability to take responsibility for his own institution’s problems is staggering.

Let’s imagine for a moment that the public schools do have a bigger sexual abuse problem than the church (and they may, I don’t know). The correct response in that case is not to wait to fix the problems in the church until the problems in the schools are solved. The correct response would be to take action to fix both problems. And do you know what would give the Catholic Church the best platform to work toward fixing things in the public schools? Eagerly embracing legal reforms like statute of limitation reform. Being above reproach. In other words, the opposite of what Donohue is doing here.

While we’re at it, Donohue’s claim that there have only been an average of 8.4 credible accusations made against a priest in the past ten years is interesting given his eagerness to lump those who bring abuse allegations in with those who have it out for the church, and given the Vatican’s continued insistence that if the parents don’t want to bring charges, abuse does not have to be reported. Indeed, it was just this problem that created the scandal in the first place—the parents of victims were told by priests and bishops that if they went public it would look bad for the church, and were instead convinced to settle the problem in-house.

Besides, on some level we won’t know the full extent of child sexual abuse currently taking place in the Catholic Church until those victims are grown and in a position where they can bring allegations. Yes, some sexually abused children will have trusted adults they can go to about their abuse in the present, and some will have parents who believe them and are willing to take the issue to court, but many others won’t. Part of the reason much of the abuse discussed over the last decade and a half took place decades ago is that the victims of that abuse weren’t able to come forward about what happened until now, as adults.

The Catholic Church is not opposed to legal revisions that would allow more time for victims to come forward in the future, but it is opposed to changes allowing for an expanded “look-back” period. We know what this is all about, and it has nothing to do with justice for all.

I’m sorry, what? The entire point of raising the statute of limitations is to allow for an extended “look-back” period. Essentially, Donohue is saying that he’s okay wth this in the future, but not now. Excuse me? Donohue also says that a desire to let victims come forward now (i.e. now, and not just “in the future”) has nothing to do with justice. In what world is Donohue living? Perhaps if we remove the statute of limitations the Catholic Church will have the incentive needed to actually get serious about dealing with child sexual abuse. And yes, that would be a means of providing justice, not just for past victims but also, hopefully, for children at risk of victimization today.

If lawmakers want to make real changes, let them demand that the clergy and all counselors be added to the list of mandatory reporters. The Church supports such a change. Working against this is the New York Civil Liberties Union and Family Planning Advocates, the lobbying arm of Planned Parenthood. Why? Because that would require Planned Parenthood counselors to report cases of statutory rape that come to their attention, and that is not something they can stomach.

Okay, first of all, the Vatican is still telling Bishops that they don’t need to report allegations of child sexual abuse. Instead, they’re saying that’s up to the parents. This suggests that whoever is developing the training for Bishops may not actually support making clergy mandatory reporters. Donohue may want to talk to someone about this. I also don’t know whether Donohue’s allegations about Planned Parenthood’s lobbying are true. If they are, that is something that should be corrected. When I was trained to volunteer as a counselor at Planned Parenthood, we were explicitly told to ask the age of the partner any time a minor came in for an abortion, so that we could make a report of statutory rape when applicable.

There is, however, no reason we can’t both have statute of limitation reform and make clergy mandatory reporters.

The sexual abuse of minors is a serious problem in our society—it even led to jail time last week for a former Speaker of the House. It demands a serious response, free from politics. Those who harbor an agenda against the Catholic Church have no legitimate role to play in such matters.

Bill Donohue President

Actually, this is the perfect example of the problem at hand. Dennis Hastert did not receive jail time for preying on minors. He received jail time for financial irregularities related to paying off the minors he’d preyed on decades ago. Because the statute of limitations had run out, those victims could not take him to court for sexually abusing them when they were children. He will never pay for those crimes, and he will not be added to any state’s sex offender registry. I’m not sure Donohue knows this. Or maybe he does, and thinks it’s a-okay. He is, after all, fighting statute of limitation reform.

Taken as a whole, this suddenly feels very similar to my evangelical upbringing, where we had a victim complex so strong that practically everything was interpreted as “them” out to get us. That certainly seems to be the lens through which Donohue is interpreting statue of limitation reform. But guess what? Sometimes a victim wanting justice is really just a victim wanting justice. To the extent that there is an “agenda”—and in some sense there is!—it is a desire to ensure that the Catholic Church strengthens its sexual abuse prevention policies, and takes sexual abuse more seriously, so that future children will be safe from priestly predation.

Donahue isn’t the only Catholic leader opposing statute of limitation reform. Rather, the Church itself has fought extending the statute of limitations in state after state:

“It is the bishops who have blocked any kind of meaningful reform,” said Marci Hamilton, a professor at the Cardozo School of Law in New York who studies statutes of limitations.

“The bishops and the pope have a lot of explaining to do as to why it would be in their mission to keep all of these victims from seeking justice.”

And as mentioned before, the Catholic Church is still telling Bishops, in 2016, that they have no obligation to report sexual abuse to the authorities.

The Catholic church is telling newly appointed bishops that it is “not necessarily” their duty to report accusations of clerical child abuse and that only victims or their families should make the decision to report abuse to police.

A document that spells out how senior clergy members ought to deal with allegations of abuse, which was recently released by the Vatican, emphasised that, though they must be aware of local laws, bishops’ only duty was to address such allegations internally.

I really wish I were making this up, but I’m not. In fact, things are so bad that some victims-rights groups are alleging that nothing has substantively changed.

SNAP, a US-based advocacy group for abuse victims that has been very critical of Pope Francis on the issue, said the news outlined in John Allen’s Crux article proved that the church had not substantially changed.

“It’s infuriating, and dangerous, that so many believe the myth that bishops are changing how they deal with abuse and that so little attention is paid when evidence to the contrary – like this disclosure by Allen – emerges,” the group said in a statement.

This is not the first time the news has caught wind of the Catholic Church’s lack of reporting requirements for its Bishops and clergy, something you would think the church would have changed the moment the scandal broke in 2002.

Next time someone tells you that the Catholic Church has changed, and that it now takes child abuse seriously, ask them why the Church is fighting statute of limitation reform. Ask them why the Vatican is still telling the Bishops they have no obligation to report child sexual abuse allegations. Ask them why church money is flowing to fight victims, rather than to help them. Ask them why so many Catholic readers would rather portray victims’ rights groups as anti-Catholic hate groups than actually grapple with the problem.

I’m not quite done addressing these issues. Tomorrow I’m going to focus on another argument Catholic leadership commonly uses to oppose statute of limitations reform. Once again, you’ll see leadership misleading laity.

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