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.