This week, Cardinal George Pell, a high-ranking Vatican official, was summoned to his native Australia to face criminal charges for what was termed “historical child abuse.”
The police have not disclosed any details about the abuse or when it occurred. But a recent book recounted the story of an altar boy who came forward to charge abuse in 2014. The alleged incident took place sometime between 1996 and 2001.
That would mean that at least 13 years elapsed before a victim came forward
Reportedly, he did so after the suicide of a fellow former altar boy.
We don’t know whether Pell is guilty. He has denied all allegations of abuse. But what we do know is that if the alleged victim had lived in New York, he likely would have had been denied any access to justice.
That’s because New York has some of the highest hurdles in the nation for the victims of sexual abuse that occurred when they were children. New York only gives these victims five years after turning 18 to seek civil or criminal redress.
That’s not long enough. Child victims take years, sometimes decades, to truly process what happened to them, and then to summon up the courage to ask for criminal or civil redress.
Advocates for victims have been struggling for more than a decade to persuade New York lawmakers to pass a law that would give victims more time to seek justice. The reformers backed a proposal to essentially eliminate the deadline for child sexual abuse complaints in the future, and to give victims of child abuse in the past a one-year window to file complaints.
This year, lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled Assembly and Gov. Andrew Cuomo both backed a more modest bill that would have permitted victims until age 28 to file criminal complaints of past sexual abuse, but would have permitted victims to file civil suits until they turned 50. The bill also kept the one-year window for past victims to file suit.
But even that modest proposal was blocked by the leader of the Republican State Senate, who refused to even bring the measure up for a vote before the legislature adjourned at the end of June. When the State Senate balked, Cuomo appeared reluctant to spend political capital to change the outcome.
Advocates have blamed the intense opposition of the Catholic Church. The church reportedly has spent more than $2 million lobbying to block the bill.
What happened in New York is not unique. Catholic bishops often strongly oppose this type of legislation. And the fight is generally over the same issues.
Faced with the potential onslaught of victims, church officials contend that these laws would harm innocent priests because of false accusations and would cost the church millions in litigation.
But supporters counter that there is little evidence that extending deadlines results in frivolous claims.They also point out that victims still have to convince prosecutors, judges and juries that such abuse occurred.
On one point, the bishops are right. If past victims receive access to justice, the church likely will face many more lawsuits. Indeed, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan conceded as much when he mortgaged the church’s pricey Manhattan real estate to create a $100 million victims fund.
Dolan seems to be willing to spend this much to control the process and tamp down the bad publicity. The compensation fund is similar to funds paying damages to the victims of mass terror like the 9/11 or the Boston Marathon attacks.
Yes, victims will receive compensation, but they also must promise never to sue and to comply with privacy and confidentiality requirements.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) has charged that the fund is tantamount to “hush money” if the archdiocese fails to publicly disclose the names of abusers and ensure that crimes are reported to the authorities, and does not makes it files on accused priests available to Kenneth Feinberg, who is administering the fund.
The fund also does not cover victims of clergy who are members of religious orders, even though they work with the approval of the diocese. That would exclude abuse by nearly 80 percent of the priests, religious and deacons in New York.
Nevertheless, the program’s first phase, open to those with documented claims of past abuse, drew 142 victims. In its second phase, the fund will consider claims by new victims.
Its existence offers some insight into the clergy’s motives when they so ardently block laws to give victims more time to seek justice. It’s not mainly about the money, although that certainly is a big factor. It’s the scandal.
The institutional church is so concerned about its reputation that when Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, himself a victim of abuse, was willing to testify in support of extending the statute of limitations for abuse victims in Ohio, the Vatican quickly punished him. His crime? Publicly disagreeing with Ohio bishops, who strongly opposed the reform bill.
The only way to deal with the scandals and the lawsuits is to better protect the children in the church’s care. And that means flushing out all the abusers, past and present, and addressing abuse complaints as transparently as possible.
It means that church leaders must finally realize that the reputation of the institutional church should not be their highest priority. The church’s reputation will only improve until and unless Pope Francis, cardinals and bishops address this problem fully and directly.
Church leaders fight stronger laws, but these laws are not their enemy. Sooner or later, church officials will have to face up to the fundamental problem. It is staring them in the mirror.