Jun 15, 2012

Church Fights Legislative Battle Against Its Victims

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

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Just when I thought I couldn't be any more sickened by the Catholic Church's handling of its sex abuse crisis, comes a New York Times piece on their ongoing war against the victims of abuse that they enabled for generations. This particular battle is being fought on the legislative front. As more and more states consider extending or eliminating statutes of limitations for civil and/or criminal litigation, the Church is mobilizing to decrease their own legal exposure.

The Church is pulling out all the stops, deploying not only priests and bishops, but parishioners, lobbyists, and publicists. Hiring pros gets expensive but I guess when you've already paid out billions in settlements, and dioceses like Milwaukee are facing bankruptcy, it's a drop in the bucket. Their primary argument predictably revolves around reliability of evidence. As Patrick Brannigan, executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference told the State Legislature:

“How can an institution conceivably defend itself against a claim that is 40, 50 or 60 years old?” Mr. Brannigan said. “Statutes of limitation exist because witnesses die and memories fade.”

Yep. Cold cases are hard to prosecute. But statutes of limitation are based largely on the severity of the crime as weighed against the difficulty of prosecution. So it comes down to just how seriously we take the sexual abuse of children. There is no statute of limitations on murder even though "witnesses die and memories fade" and some of us see sex abuse as comparable. Some survivors will tell you that murder would have been kinder.

It is simply not true that there aren't numerous cases in which the proof is readily available and I'd wager that this is what the Church fears most. Says professor and victims' attorney Marci A. Hamilton of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, “Even when you have an institution admitting they knew about the abuse, the perpetrator admitting that he did it, and corroborating evidence, if the statute of limitations has expired, there won’t be any justice.”

There are some very curious wrinkles to this story. One is that the Vatican's new guidelines actually call for extending the statute of limitations by 10-20 years for its own in-house reporting. Of course the difference there is that the Church is in control of its internal investigations and isn't risking the same legal exposure and expense of facing the criminal justice system. They talk a good game about working with civil authorities but the practice has not caught up to the rhetoric. They're still resisting reporting requirements actively and passively.

Stranger still, the legislation they're fighting would not be retroactive, as per a Supreme Court ruling. This would not appear to be opening the Church to further consequences for all those cases from the purported peak of the crisis in the 60's and 70's. For a Church that insists the crisis is in the past, this seems more than a little odd. Asks Erin Gloria Ryan in Jezebel:

Does the Church anticipate that they'll continue to have problems with pedophile priests and bishops who protect and enable them for decades into the future? How about just stop sexually abusing children?

Well, yeah!

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