Catholic Church Fighting Loosening of Sex Abuse Statute of Limitation Laws
Monday, June 18, 2012
The Roman Catholic Church in America, whose complicity in decades of sexual abuse of children by its priests and other clerics has already cost it at least $2.5 billion for legal fees, out-of-court settlements and prevention programs, is fighting tooth and nail to shut the lid of its coffers to past abuse victims who have not yet come forward. During the past decade, victim advocates such as the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) and SOL-Reform have pushed proposals to reform statutes of limitations, which impose deadlines on when victims can file a lawsuit or prosecutors can bring charges. Typically, states require persons alleging that they were sexually abused during childhood to take legal action within a certain number of years after becoming legal adults at age 18 or 21.
The proposed reforms, which numerous states have considered, include lengthening the limits or abolishing them altogether, and opening temporary “legal windows” of 1 or 2 years when victims can file lawsuits no matter how long ago the alleged abuse occurred. Based on mountains of data, they argue that reform is necessary in order to serve justice. The severe trauma often associated with sexual abuse, especially when perpetrated by a trusted, religious, authority figure like a priest or nun, creates such profound confusion and intense shame in the victim that it can take years or even decades for a survivor to be psychologically and emotionally capable of taking action. Without reform, many perpetrators are never brought to justice and are free to abuse again. In California, for example, passage of a one-year window in 2002 led about 1,000 survivors to come forward and identify the names of more than 300 alleged perpetrators.
Despite these arguments, the Catholic Church has defeated reform in many states, arguing that it is too difficult to get reliable evidence after decades have passed, that the changes seem aimed at bankrupting the church, and that reform creates the possibility of false claims being rewarded. The basic flaw in these related positions is that they assume that a level playing field should and could exist between abuse survivors and the Church. However, Anglo-American law has insisted for centuries, through a concept called “unclean hands,” that those who commit, assist others to commit or cover-up wrongdoing may not hide behind arguments of fairness, especially when their conduct helped to prevent the wrongdoing from coming to light.
The Church, which denied and covered up the abuse for years, might do well to remember the wise contrition of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. With the Civil War winding down in March 1864, Lincoln found deeper meaning in the death and destruction wrought by the war, concluding that Americans had brought the war on themselves through the sin of slavery:
“If…American slavery is one of those offenses which…God…now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came,...[and] if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”
Perhaps the fabulous wealth of the Catholic Church, piled up even as hundreds of priests abused thousands of children, must be lost as recompense for the Church’s crimes.
- Matt Bewig, David Wallechinsky
To Learn More:
Church Battles Efforts to Ease Sex Abuse Suits (by Laurie Goodstein and Erik Eckholm, New York Times)
Catholic Church Fights to Kill PA’s Statute of Limitation Reform (by Tara Murtha, Philadelphia Weekly)
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