I read this column today in the newspaper, one need only change a few descriptions and there you have it, a story about the Watchtower Society.
Bishops should pay for letting priests prey
Wednesday, March 20, 2002
If there are, as I was taught in my youth, certain sins that cry to heaven for justice, then shielding sexual predators so they can go on preying on children must rank high on the list.
Even if the sinner is a bishop; even if the statute of limitations has run out; even when the law says it doesn't apply to you.
A legal opinion doesn't wipe away moral cupidity; the passage of time doesn't signify innocence. The transfer of money from defendant to plaintiff doesn't wipe the record clean.
Legal gobbledygook doesn't protect children from recidivist perverts. Churches are supposed to protect the afflicted, not the perpetrators.
Or so I was told when the church set out to confirm me as a member.
I am intrigued by a letter to the editor I read the other day from a lawyer who has been representing Catholic religious orders and the day care facilities and schools that they operate.
He says that the church has made serious attempts to do something about its pedophile priest problem "for a generation." He goes on to say that child abusers are hard to catch, that great care must be taken to safeguard civil rights and that there should be no leaps to judgment. The "temptation to indulge in aggressive litigation" should be resisted; treatment and counseling should be sought.
"Responsibility for these horrific acts lies with the perpetrator, and his organization is often yet another victim of his heinous acts," the letter concludes.
In other words, when a priest fondles a child sexually or violates the child's body, he not only abuses that child but brings dishonor on the church, too.
But what we have here is the church hierarchy making every effort to disgrace itself. Bishops and cardinals and bishops- and cardinals-to-be acting as enablers and maybe even as co-conspirators. It wasn't the perpetrators in Boston and Bridgeport who arranged their own transfers from parish to parish without warning pastors or alerting police. And the molesters didn't have the authority to approve the thousands of secret, out-of-court settlements. Nor the authority to declare themselves cured after a couple of months of out-of-sight counseling.
But the bishops did. It was the bishops who tolerated these horrific and heinous crimes against children. When they did take action, it was only after these men were publicly exposed. When the clergy apologized for covering up these crimes, they did so reluctantly, with only a passing reference to the damage they'd done. There are 50,000 priests in the United States, and thanks to the bishops, every one is suspect. The reputation of the church -- an institution 2,000 years old -- is in tatters, its financial condition desperate and its teachings compromised.
I have no reason to think that this letter wasn't written in good faith, but it is a lawyer's argument and morally irrelevant. Still, the bishops' main recourse now is the law -- the statute of limitations, the charitable immunity law.
Not long ago, an appeals court threw out a suit brought by two brothers filed in 1992 against the Newark Archdiocese. They accused a priest of molesting them more than 20 years earlier and said the pastor, who was a monsignor, and the officials of the archdiocese knew or should have known about it.
They lost because the court had trouble believing their claim that in October of that year, just before the statute of limitations would kick in, both had experienced a flood of memories of abuse. Also because the monsignor and the diocese were protected by the immunity statute, which holds that even if the monsignor had been warned about the abusive priest, there was no real evidence.
So the priest stayed on, and years later other men would come forward and say he abused them, too, when they were boys. Seven years' worth of parish documents, which the brothers said would have supported their claims that the priest's sexual proclivities were well-known, are missing.
Ultimately the priest left the parish under a cloud, but it had nothing to do with sex, said the monsignor. Oh no, he was caught "skimming the bingo money."
The charitable immunity law makes for a very uneven playing field when you sue the church because it exempts the church from responsibility for acts committed by its employees "where the injured party is a beneficiary to any degree of the works" of the church.
In this case the sodomized brothers were the beneficiaries of the priest's determination to provide them with "spiritual enrichment."
This was a reasonable decision by the court but a hollow victory for the church and maybe a Pyrrhic one. But it noted that the Legislature has been invited more than once to take another look at this law.
Which it should do. The bishops don't deserve special protection. What's happened to the church has come about through their fault, through their fault, though their most grievous fault.
John McLaughlin is a Star-Ledger columnist.