Eliminate Statutes of Limitation in Childhood Sexual Abuse Cases: A Litmus Test for the Vatican

According to the Vancouver Sun, the Vatican will soon be releasing a letter to Catholic bishops around the world dealing with child sex abuse.  I know I'm excited. 

After their persistent dithering and bobbing and weaving, it is hard to gin up much interest in this latest memo to the bishops.  This is an institution that recently condemned a bishop for suggesting that women could be priests and priests should be married, but has been nearly mute about another bishop who publicly admitted, almost laconically, that he sexually abused two nephews.  How can the Vatican claim any moral authority on the issue of child sex abuse when it has demonstrated such a lackluster response to disgusting, intrafamilial abuse by one of its own priests? 

So how will we know when the Vatican is serious about protecting children from its pedophile priests?  Actually, there is a litmus test.

Right now, the greatest comfort to a bishop who is looking over his shoulder and hoping no one can document his callous cover-up of child predators are the short statutes of limitations in many countries that keep the victims out of court. 

So if they are sincere about changing the world to be a better place for children, or even the lesser goal of proving their mettle to protect children, they will endorse the elimination of childhood sexual abuse statutes of limitations (backwards and forwards), and encourage all victims to go to court.  That is correct —they will have to embrace justice for the victims.

Without this legal change, the bishops' massive, inhumane, and orchestrated cover-up of child sex abuse will continue to fester.  The vast majority of victims will continue to wonder how we could let them suffer so much, and the bishops will keep checking their backs to see who has learned what.  Until they welcome the justice system and its values for every victim, they will have done less than is demanded by simple humanity.

(Of course, real justice can be achieved without the bishops' permission.  That is what legislators are for—doing what is right for us even if those with a vested interest oppose it.  And two states, California and Delaware, have done the right thing despite the bishops' opposition.  Hawaii is on the verge of joining their distinguished ranks on child protection.  In other states, the bishops continue to win the battle against victims in the state legislatures.)

It is obvious that it will take the Vatican to change the tortured course of this institution's opaque dealings with pedophiles.  Even the most highly educated of Catholics in this country—distinguished academics - apparently still don't understand that the Church will have no moral authority on most issues until it does something spectacular on this issue, like endorsing legal justice for child sex abuse victims. 

Speaker of the House John Boehner is scheduled to deliver the commencement address at Catholic University, and an impressive list of Catholic academics signed a letter castigating him, because "your voting record is at variance from one of the Church's most ancient moral teachings."  Imagine the small rustlings of hope inside my soul as I thought that finally a powerful group of Catholics was going to remind those in power that Jesus taught first to do no harm to children.

Well, the letter is about harm to children, but it is about money, not abuse.  The letter castigates Boehner for his record in voting for cuts to the Maternal and Child Health grants, Women Infants and Children, Medicaid, and Medicare.  Repeatedly, the letter castigates Boehner for not following the Church's teaching to protect the vulnerable.

The academics tell Boehner that "Catholic social doctrine is not merely a set of goals to be achieved by whatever means one chooses.  It is also a way of proceeding, a set of principles that are derived from the truth of the human person."  They then quote Pope Benedict: "Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality.  Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way....the word 'love" is abused and distorted, to the point where it comes to mean the opposite."

I would have paraphrased the Pope's words as follows:  "Without truth about child sex abuse, there is suffering, suicide, and devastation." That is far too often the life of the victim who was abused by a pedophile priest, who, in turn, was aided by bishops more concerned with staffing than crimes.

A victim can never get to the bottom of the truth, so long as bishops succeed in lobbying to ensure that he or she can never get to court.    

Congress itself has a shameful record on the clergy abuse crisis.  Boehner may have voted to reduce funding for the poor into the future, but he has done nothing for the victims of sex abuse by clergy, past or present.    

5/12/2011 4:00:00 AM
  • God vs Gavel
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  • 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).