Seeking Justice

In the homily at his April 15 installation Mass, New York’s new Archbishop Timothy Dolan candidly acknowledged the many challenges facing the church, including the priest shortage and the economic crisis. Importantly, he also mentioned the sexual-abuse scandal.

The church must “beg forgiveness from God and from victim survivors and their families,” Dolan said, and commit to “reform, renewal, and outreach.” Reaching out to victims while at the same time defending the church’s fundamental mission and its legitimate legal rights won’t be easy. When it comes to priest-abusers, Dolan has inherited an unusual situation. The crisis has not devastated the church in New York as it has in Boston and other cities. In California, dioceses rang up $1 billion in settlements. Boston and Philadelphia saw 7 percent of priests who served since 1950 credibly accused. Yet New York’s rate hovered under 2 percent—the lowest of all dioceses. What has made New York relatively immune? Perhaps the oversight was better, or the training. Maybe the many religious-order priests in New York handled allegations in-house, keeping their cases from reaching the chancery.

Some victims’ advocates have another theory. They say that state law requiring a victim to file a civil claim of sexual abuse before he or she turns twenty-three makes it difficult for the truth to come to light. For years victims’ advocacy groups have been lobbying legislators nationwide to relax or abolish statutes of limitation in sexual-abuse cases. They argue that changing the law is the best way to combat stonewalling by Catholic dioceses.

In 2002 California passed such a bill. The law opened a one-year “window,” allowing plaintiffs to file suit no matter when the alleged abuse occurred. But the legislation applied only to civil claims against private institutions—public institutions were exempt. (There is no statute of limitation for criminal rape charges, but standards for evidence in criminal cases are much higher, making prosecutions more difficult.) More than one thousand claims were made against the Catholic Church in California—roughly 80 percent of all window claims filed. In many cases, the alleged abuser—and his supervisors—had long been dead.

Weeks before Archbishop Dolan was installed, New York State Assemblywoman Margaret Markey reintroduced a bill modeled on California’s window legislation. After the close of a one-year window, the bill would extend the current statute of limitation by five years, allowing victims who were minors to file suit until their twenty-eighth birthday. Advocates assumed that after Democrats took control of the state Senate last year, Markey’s bill would pass easily. But a coalition of opponents, including the New York Catholic Conference, the New York criminal defense bar, and Democratic Assemblyman Vito Lopez, stood in their way.

The current statute of limitation should be extended to make it easier for victims to seek justice. But opening a window for decades-old accusations would violate the integrity of our legal system. First, contrary to the claims of some victims’ advocates, statutes of limitation are not arbitrary or unfair. Memories fade. Evidence goes stale. Witnesses die. Putting time limits on lawsuits protects the innocent. Lifting the statute of limitation might bring justice for some, but given the lower burden of proof for civil cases, it would also expose too many others to accusations that cannot possibly be either proven or discredited.

Second, like other window legislation, the proposed Markey bill exempts public institutions from such civil suits. But a recent Associated Press report revealed that between 2001 and 2005, 2,750 public-school teachers nationwide had their licenses revoked or restricted because of sexual misconduct with minors. Victims’ advocates know that it is nearly impossible to overturn laws protecting public institutions from civil suits. (Under state law, civil suits against such institutions must be filed within ninety days of the alleged abuse.) As a consequence, the Markey legislation appears to target the Catholic Church while depriving the largest group of victims, namely public-school students, of their day in court.

To its everlasting shame, the institutional Catholic Church turned a deaf ear to abuse victims for decades. Yet financial settlements cannot offer the sort of healing Archbishop Dolan speaks of and many victims still long for. Draining church coffers will hurt Catholics in the pews and the poor more than it will punish bishops. Yes, the church must find a way to compensate victims justly. But the legal system cannot heal the horrible wounds caused by sexual abusers and the bishops who enabled them. Eventually lawyers on both sides will have to get out of the way so that the hard work of reconciliation and healing can begin.

April 28, 2009

Readers respond: Letters, June 5, 2009