The sexual abuse of children is a heinous crime. While a victim’s physical pain and scars may fade, the emotional pain and scars often last a lifetime. It is true that in the past a small number of Catholic priests have been guilty of this grave evil. As men who represent the person of Christ in the celebration of the Eucharist, priests who commit such depraved acts not only subject themselves to criminal penalties, they also rightfully forfeit their right to ever again exercise their priestly ministry.
This is why in 2002 the United States Bishops agreed to remove from ministry every ordained clergy member who has been found to have committed this type of sexual abuse. It is also why the Catholic Church has become a leader in efforts to reach out to victims of past abuse with assistance and to prevent future instances of sexual abuse especially by anyone who serves in our Churches and ministries.
Despite the Church’s increased efforts to protect children, some advocacy groups, backed by trial lawyers, are seeking to pass new laws that are designed to bankrupt the various dioceses of New York State while at the same time protect public institutions where abuse has occurred.
Sexual abuse occurs everywhere, and society must root out the abusers and punish them to the fullest extent of the law. The most common location for sexual abuse is in the home. Outside the home, public schools are the most frequent place where children to encounter abuse. A recent report by the Associated Press revealed that in New York State and across the country, the number of children abused by public school employees, such as teachers, overwhelms the number of children abused by Catholic priests. For example, there were 485 reports of abuse in New York State public schools in just the five year period between 2002 and 2006. That’s nearly 200 more cases than the total number of priests accused in New York since 1957, a period of more than 50 years.
These statistics meant to provide context often missing in the media and not to attempt to in any way minimize the crimes of clergy members who have so gravely abused the trust given to them.
Here in New York, legislators are considering a bill proposed by Assemblywoman Margaret Markey, D-Queens, and Sen. Thomas Duane, D-Manhattan, that would allow some people who say they were victims of sexual abuse many years ago to bring lawsuits, even though the statute of limitations on such cases have expired. Statutes of limitations refer to a period of time in which civil or criminal penalties can be brought against an individual or institution accused of wrongdoing. They exist not just for sexual abuse cases but for virtually all civil and criminal proceedings. Statutes of limitations were designed to ensure justice and fairness in court proceedings. The more time that elapses, the harder it is for the accused to provide a defense. Statutes of limitations also help to assure prompt and timely reporting of wrongdoing, so that steps might be taken to prevent greater harm or wrongdoing from occurring. Under this bill now being considered, a person can bring a lawsuit against the Catholic Church for abuse that may have taken place 60 years ago or more. He would be permitted to bring this suit even though he may have never reported the abuse at any time over the last six decades and even though the accused priest, and anyone else who might have some knowledge of the facts, are all long dead. The individual may have been abused, but can a credible determination of the truth be reached under such circumstances? Should today’s Catholic families, who sacrifice greatly to support their parish, their Catholic school and other ministries be forced to pay for what a cleric may or may not have done in the 1940s or ’50s?
This is troubling enough when only one single case is involved. Imagine the situation of several hundred people coming forward making such claims from many years ago and with no physical evidence. Not only would it be impossible to discover the truth, but the prospect of losing some of the cases with potential multi-million judgments, could put the Church in position to be forced to enter into a group settlement of all cases, even those cases that may have little to no merit. Unfortunately no one has to “imagine it.” It has happened already in California, where a similar law was enacted and has cost the Church there close to a billion dollars. Plaintiffs’ attorneys have taken close to half of the total awarded to those who claimed abuse. Under New York law, trial attorneys here would see the same windfall.
But what of a person who was the victim of abuse by a public school teacher as a child just a few years ago? Because of different laws governing lawsuits against public institutions, that person would not be able to sue under this new law. That’s because anyone suing a public school or municipality must file a notice with the courts within 90 days of the incident indicating their intent to bring a suit. This “notice of claims” provision would not be affected by a change in the statute of limitations. In California, victims of public school abuse who sought the right to sue were turned away, even though they represent potentially the largest class of sex abuse victims. That would be the case in New York as well.
For this reason, it is clear that this law is not about justice for victims of sexual abuse. Instead it involves a thinly disguised targeting of the Catholic Church by a coalition of trial lawyers who seek to enrich themselves by seizing Church properties. Where we see churches and schools built and supported with our contributions, they see only valuable real estate to acquire and sell. These lawyers are aided by a group of politicians, many of whom are hostile toward the Church over our stand on issues such as abortion or same sex marriage.
To be clear, this bill does nothing to protect children from abuse today. The Legislature could take any number of actions that could more effectively address the crisis of child sexual abuse. The Church fully supports extending criminal and civil statutes of limitations going forward. The Church supports increased criminal penalties for those who abuse children. The Church supports measures to mandate sexual abuse prevention programs in every institution, public and private, that work with children. The Church supports mandatory reporting by clergy members and others of those suspected of committing abuse.
We urge you to support laws to protect your children and grandchildren from child abuse. But reopening statutes of limitations for only one class of victims is not just or equitable, and will only serve to punish today’s Catholic parishioners, schoolchildren and those in need of the services of our health care institutions and charities. Please call on your legislators and Governor Paterson to reject this terribly misguided and unjust bill.