The Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis will pay $210 million in compensation to victims of child abuse at the hands of her priests and other employees. The penalty is a result of lawsuits that were filed after a 2013 law suspended the statute of limitations on cases of child abuse for a three-year window so alleged victims of child abuse from years past, even decades past, could sue those they accused.
There are problems with these sort of “open window” laws suspending the statute of limitations on these cases. First of all is the fact that there’s a reason for statute of limitations on most crimes. It allows a measure of protection against false accusations being lodged against those, such as the dead, who can no longer defend themselves. It also protects due process, because over many years and decades memories fade, documents are lost, and people die. It also protects current innocents from the crimes, or alleged crimes, committed by those long dead or debilitated.
Another problem with “open window” laws is that they often make no pretense of targeting religious institutions while giving public institutions a pass. A 2002 law passed in California excluded public schools from the open window. Colorado and New York have also attempted to pass laws that specifically exclude public schools and institutions from the open window. All of this in the face of research that demonstrates that abuse by public school employees is considerably higher than abuse by religious. When Colorado amended their proposed law to include public schools, it was shot down by the teacher’s unions. This is a basic contradiction of the principle of equal justice under the law, creating a two-tiered justice system. The Church and other religious or private institutions are subject to one standard, while public institutions are subject to a different standard. The same is true for victims of child abuse: a minor abused by a priest in 1965 can still sue, while a minor abused by a teacher last year is already too late to file.
Having said all of that, more needs to be said.
The reason the Church is suffering this horror is because of those Catholics who put themselves before others, whether that be the judas priests who exploited minors or the short-sighted bishops and diocesan and religious order officials who put protecting the Church’s reputation before protecting the children. Psychologists and psychiatrists who knew little about pedophilia and other predatory sex crimes also felt empowered to, basically, experiment on various therapies that continued to put children at risk, encouraging bishops to put men back into positions where they would continue to have contact with children because, they thought, it was necessary for their recovery. All of this represented a massive failure of common sense and right priorities. As a result, the children suffered and continue to suffer as adults, and the Church’s current ministries suffer because resources that could have gone to effective ministries are going to justly compensate victims. The Church’s credibility as a moral institution also suffers, as do her people who love the Church and pray and work for her daily.
Another reason for these lawsuits, and the devastating size of these lawsuits, is the failure of the Church to embrace one her most crucial missions, that of instrument of reconciliation. The priority of the Church ought not be to protect the Church from as much damage as possible, but to effect reconciliation between victims, predators, and the Body of Christ that remains the instrument of salvation for us all. It will do no good if the Church pays out millions to victims, if those victims become or remain estranged from Christ and the healing grace He won by His life and sacrifice. It will do no good if the Church punishes abusers, if those abusers become or remain estranged from Christ and the merciful grace He won by His life and sacrifice.
One story that is rarely reported is the genuine success the Church has enjoyed as a result of reforms adopted in the 1980’s. One case of abuse is one too many, and we should never be satisfied with anything less than zero abuse. But, in the middle seventies, there were hundreds of credible cases of abuse against priests and others in the Church. Since the 1990’s, the number of credible cases has averaged less than ten a year. No other institution has achieved such success in confronting the reality of abuse, and few have even bothered trying.
The Church must build on the success of her reforms to reach out to victims and abusers in a new ministry of reconciliation, empowered by God’s grace, which has the power to transform darkness into light and horror into mercy.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.