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The Release of the Los Angeles Archdiocese’s Records Relating to Clergy Child Sex Abuse: The Insights It Reveals, and Why the Justice System Deserves Great Credit Here

The Earth moved in Los Angeles recently, without a flicker of the Richter scale. Files of the Los Angeles Archdiocese were released as part of a civil case in which members of the hierarchy were named, and their unforgivable actions described in their own words.  These men knew about child-predator priests who gravely harmed dozens, if not hundreds, of victims, and they never once called the police before the year 2000.  Instead, they helped one pedophile priest escape the country, suggested sending another to a therapist who was also a lawyer so as to ensure that attorney-client privilege would apply, and let another simply melt into the general population after returning from treatment.  The details, reported by The Los Angeles Times,are nauseating.

These files are just the beginning of the earthshaking information still to be released in Los Angeles, as the revelations I have described above are from just one individual case.  Soon, the files that were supposed to be released as part of the massive 2007 settlement between 550 survivors and the Archdiocese will also become public.  While the Archdiocese pushed hard to have the names of the members of the hierarchy redacted in those files, the press fought back in court and won.  Now, these additional files will be also released, and likely will be just as searing as the few just now released.

I know, I know.  At this point in history, learning that bishops failed to protect children from priest child predators is something that, to quote Capt. Reynaud in Casablanca,  “I’m shocked, shocked to find.” The bigger picture though, is where I would like my reader to look now.  The truth about child sex abuse in our culture is pouring in; where did it come from?

The Truth About Child Sex Abuse Is Coming from the Justice System

The answer to that question is quite simple—the United States system of justice.  When child sex abuse survivors are locked out of court, we are all ignorant.  When survivors can go to court, though, the public learns the truth.

The Los Angeles situation is the result first of the California statute-of-limitations window legislation passed in 2003.  Thanks to that law, for one year, the victims of child sex abuse could go to court even if their statutes of limitations had expired.  All those voices that had been shut out of court now could be heard, loud and clear. And the chorus of survivors’ voices was loud and clear, with over 1,000 voices speaking about abuse in families and institutions ranging from the Catholic dioceses to the Explorer Scouts to private homes.  Those voices invited other voices to join the chorus, making the chorus louder, so that it was heard in Delaware, Hawaii, and even Guam.  Eventually it was even heard in Europe.

The victims who spoke demanded not just compensation for what was done to them, which they deserved, but also the truth to be publicly told.  It is the rare survivor who does not want his or her perpetrator to be publicly named, so as to warn all future potential victims of the danger, and it is also the rare survivor who does not want the institution that created the conditions for his or her abuse to be forced to come clean—all so that the survivor can be sure that the perpetrator and the institution won’t do the same think to another young victim.

Survivor guilt is rough to endure, but civil and criminal justice goes a long way to shift the sense of responsibility from the small shoulders of the suffering child, to those of the adult aggressor and the callous bureaucrat who let him or her be abused.  The justice system points to the adult criminals and assigns the blame to them, as of course, it should, and thereby releases the survivor from some of his or her guilt for the abuse.

When those child-sex-abuse survivors started talking, the gears of justice turned toward dislodging the evidence that was locked not only in secret archives but also in the secret recesses of the families where incest was a part of life.   As the press watched, they realized that this was a major and deeply important story!  And, thus, they joined with the survivors in demanding that the truth be released.

In short, the 2003 California window shook things up and started the avalanche of information we are now experiencing in every state, across every organization, and place where children are.

There Was a Time When Bishops Played Whack-a-Mole With Child Sex Abuse Cases, but No Longer

Before the 2003 statute-of-limitations window in California, the bishops treated these cases like a giant game of whack-a-mole:  Pound the survivor, or their family, or the concerned priest who sought to reveal another’s misconduct, into silence, and then raise the mallet to wait for the next emergency.  The genius of the statute-of-limitations window was that the bishops couldn’t win at whack-a-mole when 850 victims and their cases were popping up at once!

Moreover, when so many cases appeared simultaneously, the bishops could no longer hide (from the lawyers, the survivors, or the press) the pattern that they already knew so well: (1) The diocese received a report of abuse; (2) The diocese told the child and family to keep silent, and promised to make the perpetrator stop; (3) The diocese sent the perpetrator away for treatment, and brought him back; and (4) then the diocese gave give him a fresh group of children to abuse at a new site, with the very same pattern repeating itself again.  And again.

They weren’t stupid men, the bishops, and so the only conclusion that any of us could draw about the perpetrators and the higher-ups who covered up for them was that they were callous, immoral men unworthy of respect or deference.  That has turned out to be true of bishops, university presidents, football coaches, and elite prep school teachers, just to name a few categories of men who have let children be abused to protect the team and its ugly secrets.

How the Los Angeles Archdiocese Files Offer Insights Into the Cover Up of Abuse in Institutions Across the Country

In the Los Angeles files we now see the paradigm of child endangerment.  With all that has happened since the 2003 window was in place, we now know, a decade later, the pattern of child sex abuse and its cover-up and that it repeats itself in many institutions—Penn State, Syracuse University, the Boy Scouts, Horace Mann, Poly Prep, the Baptist Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, groups of Orthodox Jews, and many other organizations.  We also know that child sex abuse follows an intolerable pattern that must be halted, because we are responsible for our children, and their children.

We also know there is a tool that derails the pattern and alters the power relationship between these institutions and the victims they created.  Before, the object of the pattern was to privilege the organization and its abusing loyalists.  It only worked as long as outsiders couldn’t see it.  Now that they are seeing it, the evil inherent is obvious and the need for justice patent.  Respected leaders are known for who they really are.  That tool of transparency is the simple fix of moving the statutes of limitations out of the way, unlocking the courthouse door, and ushering in the victims.

Once every state has enacted statute-of-limitations window legislation like (or even better than) California’s and removed the arbitrary deadlines that keep most victims out of court, we will have not just an avalanche but a mountain chain of truth.  Until then, those who stand in the way of the survivors’ righteous quest for healing, accountability, and transparency are the public enemies of truth and justice.

Marci A. HamiltonMarci A. Hamilton is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University, and the author of God vs. the Gavel: The Perils of Extreme Religious Liberty and Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children. She also runs two active websites covering her areas of expertise, the Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, www.RFRAperils.com, and statutes of limitations for child sex abuse, www.sol-reform.com. Professor Hamilton blogs at Hamilton and Griffin on Rights. Her email address is hamilton02@aol.com.
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  • PetrusRomanus1

    You say: “They weren’t stupid men, the bishops, and so the only conclusion that any of us could draw about the perpetrators and the higher-ups who covered up for them was that they were callous, immoral men unworthy of respect or deference.”
    That’s dangerously close to the truth, which is that the bishops DELIBERATELY fostered (under the radar, of course) all the conditions which enabled the Catholic clergy sex abuse phenomenon to grow and grow, get out of hand and go viral.
    Father Tom Doyle, OP believes that the above phenomenon will not end until the current “clerical culture” and its misdeeds and lies has been completely removed from the life of church and society. Now we know why he’s so right!

  • JerrySlevin

    Reform of statutes of limitation is surely good, but not good enough. A small percentage of all survivors and a handful of lawyers have benefited from the reform, but most of the 100,000+ U.S. survivors of priest sexual abuse and their families still suffer without justice, with some survivors becoming substance abusers and others commit suicide. More than civil law suits and statute of limitation reform must be done.

    No U.S. Bishop has, after a quarter century of media reports of U. S. priest abuse, yet been locked up for child endangerment. Often, Bishops seem to treat the large payouts, to a small percentage of total survivors, as mainly “costs of doing business” to keep the Bishops’ secrets undisclosed, which survivors’ lawyers seem too often to acquiese in as the price of large payouts and contingent fees, sooner rather than later.

    Shameful, and overly trusting Catholics, then casually contribute to fund these payouts, while the U. S. Bishops seem to continue business as usual, arrogantly closing schools and churches of the same Catholics who funded the payouts to protect the Bishops from criminal investigations. For example, Cardinal Mahony will likely sail into a lucrative retirement leaving the L. A. abuse mess to his well paid lawyers and publicists to clean up, as Cardinals Law, Rigali, Egan and Levada and many U. S. Bishops have also already done.

    President Obama must follow the exampes of other national leaders, including Australia’s and Ireland’s, and set up a national commission to investigate the sexual abuse of children in organizational settings and identify Federal responses. Local law enforcement and legislators throughout the U.S. have shown clearly they are either unable and/or unwilling to stand up adequately to the political, legal, media and financial clout of national organizations like the U.S. Bishops. The few survivors and their lawyers who have won payouts have helped change some practices among lower level Catholic church employees, which of course is beneficial, but by and large Cardinals and Bishops remain unaccountable, as Cardinal Mahony’s example once again shows.

    For more explanation of why President Obama must act now, please read the statement at ChristianCatholicism.com by a retired Harvard trained Wall Street lawyer, me, entitled, “President Obama Must Read the Latest “L.A. Confidential”, accessible by clicking on at: http://wp.me/P2YEZ3-f3
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  • 2ysur2ysub

    Just maybe, these cases can restore the people’s faith in the criminal justice system, at least a tad or smidgeon.

  • Shantwanette glover

    That’s a painful situation. I was in a Foster home I was being molested by my Foster mother from the age 11 to fourteen. I went to school reported it to my guidance counselor. They called the police made a report took me to juvenile hall where I sat and got lost in the system until sixteen. When I went I was pregnant. My Foster mother ruined my life so did the system. At 37 I finally found a coping mechanism to began to heal. But she was never prosecuted and to this day she still have kids placed in her home just to find out before I was placed in her home she had been accused of the same thing.

 

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