Child Abuse Developments

There were three important developments this week in the Church’s on-going attempts to effectively address and heal from the sexual abuse scandal perpetrated by priests and bishops over past decades.

The first is from Chile, which has been rocked by revelations of abuse by priests, especially by Fr. Fernando Karadima, the most notorious of abusers. After Pope Francis appointed Bishop Juan Barros to head the Diocese of Osorno, against the wishes of the people of the diocese, Francis was criticized harshly by many of the Catholic faithful as being tone-deaf to the concerns of the Church in Chile and the victims of abuse. Bishop Barros has been accused of covering up abuse committed by Fr. Karadima, an accusation he denies. Even still, the people rose up against Bishop Barros being named bishop in Orsorno, and he has twice submitted his resignation. At first, Pope Francis rejected the accusations against Bishop Barros, even accusing his accusers of calumny. However, when a report by Archbishop Charles Scicluna, who clearly has the trust of the pope, was submitted detailing the extent of abuse in Chile, Pope Francis changed his tune considerably, and has since met with two groups of victims of abuse, who have reported that Francis is listening. All of the bishops of Chile submitted their resignations to Francis. The somewhat symbolic action was intended to give Francis the opportunity to begin a reform of the Church in Chile with a brand new team of effective leaders. It’s doubtful, most think, that Francis will accept the resignations of all of the nation’s bishops, but he may accept the resignations of a fair number of them. It will be most interesting to see if he accepts, finally, the resignation of Bishop Barros. The Church in Chile is deeply hurt. If healing is going to take place, it will take time, patience, and the utmost transparency of the Church and eagerness of her bishops and priests to transform the Church according to her true mission of mercy and grace. Let’s pray they’re able to do so.

A second development comes out of Australia. The legislature of the Australian Capital Territory has passed a law requiring Catholic priests to break the seal of confession in some cases. Clearly, the law is aimed at priests divulging the identities of those who confess to child abuse. Call me cynical but, in my mind, this has little to do with protecting children and everything to do with the government being fed up with the fact that free nations have traditionally respected the seal of confession, which means the confessional represents a point where civil authorities and attorneys cannot pass. They don’t like that at all. So, the sexual abuse scandal becomes a wedge with which to pry open the door of the confessional. If anyone thinks demands that the confessional be violated will stop at reporting cases of child abuse, I have a bridge I would like to sell you. The government will likely fail in its effort to convince the police and attorneys that child abuse is a greater crime than murder or rape, so police and attorneys will demand that the seal be violated for those crimes, as well. And, if for those crimes, why not all? Like Archbishop Prowse is reported to claim in the article, I doubt many child abusers are going to bother confessing such sin. Besides, the requirement can easily be flouted by any given priest by his simply refusing to hear confessions outside of a confessional with a screen. This law is only a dilemma for those priests who hear confessions face-to-face. Another reason the law is futile is that no priest worth his salt is going to break the seal of confession, so what’s the point? Nothing will be achieved, except the rare occasion of a priest being prosecuted and imprisoned for refusing to break the seal. What will not be accomplished is more abusers being identified and more children being protected, because abusers are not likely to confess to a priest and priests are not going to break the seal.

A third development comes out of New York state. New York is considering a “lookback” bill suspending the statute of limitations on child abuse for a time in order to create a window of opportunity for those who were abused in the past. In some states, that  has meant the very distant past, so that many witnesses, or even the accused, are long dead, leaving little opportunity for a serious defense against the allegations. Be that as it may, one of the concerns of opponents of these bills passed in other states, like California in 2003, is that they exempt public institutions, like the public schools. This effectively creates a two-tiered justice system, one for private institutions and those who work for them, and another for public institutions and those who work for them. It also creates a two-tiered justice system for victims of abuse, for it creates the opportunity for someone who was abused as a child by a priest back in, say, 1968, to sue that priest and the diocese. But, for a student in a public school who was abused by a teacher last year, it’s already too late to file a lawsuit. There’s no getting around the fact that the state is basically telling kids who were abused by teachers that the abuse they suffered isn’t as important to the state as that suffered by those abused by priests. New York State Senator Brad Hoylman has authored just such a bill for New York, called the Child Victims Act. In conversation with Dr. Bill Donahue, director of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, Sen. Hoylman assured Dr. Donahue that his Act treated private and public institutions equally. Dr. Donahue shared a copy of the Act to the  New York State Catholic Conference, whose lawyers reviewed it and determined that the Act did not, in fact, treat private and public institutions equally. The Catholic Conference then shared a copy of the Act with New York State Appeals Judge Susan Phillips Read. In Judge Read’s opinion, the “lookback” provision of the Act did not extend to public institutions, effectively giving public schools a pass on the window of opportunity. To his credit, when Dr. Donahue informed Sen. Hoylman of this, the Senator said that he would be happy to discuss the matter with Judge Read and even to consult her so that the language of the Child Victims Act is written in such a way to make certain that all provisions of the Act, including the “lookback” provision, apply to public institutions as well as private ones. I’m not a fan of laws that suspend the statute of limitations on crimes, even crimes such as child abuse. There are good reasons for a statute of limitations. But, if such a law is going to be made, then the principle of equal justice under the law demands that it apply to everyone equally. What will that mean for the Child Victims Act? I don’t know. Years ago, Colorado considered such a law, and when it was amended to include public institutions, the teacher’s unions crushed it. We’ll have to see what happens in New York.

The primary goal of any law or policy passed related to the abuse of children is to protect the children. My prayer is that the Church in Chile, working with Pope Francis and her bishops, will be able to enact practices that protect children, identify and incarcerate abusers, and bring healing to all. I have no confidence that the new law in Australia will accomplish that. I have little confidence that the Child Victims Act in New York will do so, should it pass. But, regardless of what laws the state passes, it must be the priority of the Church to protect our children and bring healing to victims, as well as to abusers. The mercy of God extends to all.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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