Adding Insult

As the annual worldwide celebration of Jesus' birth approaches, the Roman Catholic hierarchy has made the curious decision to bring more attention to its culpability in child sex abuse by clergy, and its failed policies. If the pope and the bishops want the world to believe they have "fixed" their little problem so that they should be permitted to move onto other issues, like whether male prostitutes should wear condoms, they have failed spectacularly. 

The Recent Vatican Summit on Clergy Abuse

The Holy See widely publicized its recent gathering of bishops at the Vatican to discuss the "problem" of child sex abuse by their clergy. They made sure every reporter knew this was a top-secret meeting, which created the implication that important moves were likely to be discussed and even adopted. After the meeting, they issued press releases emphasizing the gathering was not open to the public. Plus, they were considering altering select procedures within the church's judicial system. 

They also let the world know they were not keen on "zero-tolerance," which means they will continue to make themselves the arbiters of whether a charge of sex abuse is credible, which has been the primary vehicle for covering up child sex abuse. They also, once again, passed up an opportunity to agree to report child sex abuse to civil authorities. Earlier this year the pope issued new (actually old) guidelines on reporting abuse: a bishop should report abuse if the law requires it. Guess what? American bishops have sunk untold resources into lobbying the state legislatures to avoid reporting. 

They can alter their own judicial procedures as much as they want, but they will not serve the best interests of children if they do not concede that they are dealing with criminals and that they lack (and will always lack) the tools to handle recidivist child molesters. This issue is simply beyond their capacity.   

But we did learn a great deal from this meeting:  Pope Benedict XVI has not yet displayed the moral will and vision to yoke the bishops and the institution to the horrifically heavy burden of having created thousands upon thousands of child sex abuse victims worldwide. Though it is difficult, all institutions can change, but it takes brilliant visionaries to turn them from paths of self-destruction. 

The Latest Outrages from American Bishops

If there were any doubt that the hierarchy continues to be committed to playing hardball with the victims it has created, those doubts ended when Twin Cities, Minnesota, Archbishop John Nienstedt demanded that a victim pay the Archdiocese's legal costs. This case has all the usual earmarks of a lawsuit by the victim of a priest against the institution that created the conditions for the abuse plus this new wrinkle.

The victim was abused as a child by a priest -- check.

The victim was not ready to come forward and file a lawsuit until well into adulthood -- check.

The perpetrator is known to have sexually abused numerous children -- check.

The Archdiocese and Archbishop do not (because they cannot if they want to avoid perjury) argue that the perpetrator priest was not a child abuser or that they were ignorant. The perpetrator, the then-Rev. Thomas Adamson, was notorious -- check.

The Archdiocese pushes the statute of limitations defense hard to avoid having a trial on the merits -- check.

But in this case, the Archbishop introduced a new tactic to intimidate victims. After the court ruled that the statute of limitations had expired and, therefore, the case should not go forward, the victim intended to appeal. That is the ordinary course. Yet, this time, before the appeal could even be briefed, let alone decided, Nienstedt filed a motion seeking to force the victim to pay the Archdiocese's legal costs, which it estimated at $64,000.00. The victim has been suing under a pseudonym, as most child sex abuse victims do. But he is speaking to the press tomorrow to express his outrage at an institution that victimized him in the first place and now has taken re-victimization to a new level.

In fact, there seems to be no end to the will of the bishops to silence their victims. Actions speak louder than words, and these recent moves make it clear they want the victims to be forced to resume the silence that protected the hierarchy from public scrutiny for decades and even centuries. There is no other explanation for their enthusiasm for the statute of limitations, opposition to reporting abuse, and willingness to treat their victims as mortal enemies in the midst of litigation.

12/1/2010 5:00:00 AM
  • God vs Gavel
  • Law
  • Sexual Abuse
  • Roman Catholicism
  • Marci Hamilton
    About Marci Hamilton
    Marci A. Hamilton is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law, Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University and author of Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children (Cambridge, 2008) and God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge, 2005, 2007).