Victims vow to keep cases in news
By JOE FEUERHERD
Buoyed by a seismic shift in public opinion toward their cause, victims of clerical sexual abuse should use their newfound credibility to hit the church where it hurts -- the pocketbook and the media. That message was forcefully delivered and enthusiastically received at the Feb. 21-23 meeting of Linkup, a 3,000-member advocacy group for victims of clerical sexual abuse.
Attended by approximately 160 victims and their supporters, the 11th annual gathering was equal parts strategy session (how best to stay on the offensive after a year in which their cause dominated national headlines) and group therapy.
Victims and their families were clearly comforted and occasionally emboldened by an assembly that accepted their stories and intuitively understood the ongoing trauma suffered by victims of clerical sexual abuse. Discussions dealt with such topics as Healing and Recovery, while secondary victims -- the spouses, parents, family and friends of abuse survivors -- met to discuss their concerns. Prominent speakers -- psychotherapist Richard Sipe (NCR, Jan. 10) and author Jason Berry (Lead Us Not Into Temptation) -- were heard from. Celebrate Survival was the theme of the Saturday night social.
The most applause, however, was reserved for the advocates and attorneys who offered a road map designed to keep the institutional church on the legal, financial and public relations defensive.
Top priority for this year: Change state laws that restrict criminal punishment and limit civil damages because crimes were committed 10, 20 or 30 years ago.
We have initiatives breaking out everywhere that would overturn state statute of limitations provisions related to abuse of a minor, said Minnesota lawyer Jeffrey Anderson, the lead attorney over the past two decades in abuse cases that have resulted in awards and settlements totaling more than $20 million.
Those initiatives are based largely on a 1994 California law that allowed prosecutors to bring charges against alleged abusers well after the abuse was said to have occurred. In addition, late last year California legislators suspended, for one year, the statute of limitations on civil cases. As a result, if they are unable to settle with those claiming abuse at the hands of a California clergy member, dioceses throughout the state could face liabilities in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Legislators in at least eight states, and the list is growing according to Anderson, are considering measures that would allow victims of long-ago abuse to sue for damages (see related stories, Page 4).
Public opinion is behind us and lawmakers follow public opinion, so the time is now, said Anderson. The strategy: As we lobby the legislatures and develop public policy we want them to know that we are trying to protect all children and vulnerable adults, not just those abused by clergy, said Anderson. We dont have to traffic in the clergy issue anymore. If we talk about protecting all children from predators and cultures that protect [the predators], and we just dont make it about the churches we get a lot more response. Anderson said he would like to see a survivors network developed in every state.
In Kentucky, said attorney Bill McMurry, a generous ruling from a state court voided the states statute of limitations restrictions because the church was found to have covered up abuse cases. As a result, the Louisville archdiocese faces more than 200 lawsuits against priests and church workers who allegedly molested children in their care. McMurry urged Kentucky victims to file lawsuits before the extension of the statute of limitations expires in April.
Meanwhile, Voice of the Faithful activist and Survivors First founder Paul Baier told the abuse victims to shine a light on lawmakers who withhold support for such measures. Victims and their supporters, said Baier, should publicly question why lawmakers who oppose the bills are soft on pedophiles.
Another priority, said Baier, is to crack Los Angeles and greater New York. High-profile revelations in the nations two major media centers, said Baier, is how we get another year of press attention focused on clerical sexual abuse. Further, said Baier, victims and their supporters need new approaches -- the summer camp angle, the monastery angle, and revelations of abusive clergy living outside the country -- to keep the story on the front pages.
These messages were warmly received by conference participants, many of whom likened their physical abuse to the response they received when reporting such claims to the dioceses that employed the molesters. Litigation, they said, is one of the few means to hold a recalcitrant church accountable.
Frustrated and embittered by diocesan officials more interested in covering up the problem than solving it, said abuse victim Peter Saracino, 99 percent of the people I know finally sued because the only thing [the church] understands is money and bad publicity, and lawsuits do both.
The lawsuits will help because it makes it too expensive for these priest perpetrators to continue, said Ray Higgins, a 70-year-old retired businessman whose son was molested by two priests at a California high school seminary more than a decade ago. But they have to get hit a lot harder than they have been hit so far because the insurance companies have [until now] paid most of the claims. It wont get better until theyre forced into it, until they are on their knees, said Higgins.
Higgins sees the churchs response -- establishment of a lay-run commission to investigate the causes of the crisis and new policies to ensure that children are protected -- as just so much window dressing. Theyre not interested in the victims. Theyre only interested in their power. They have no interest in us at all except that were pecking away at their power.
Fr. Gary Hayes, a priest of the Owensboro, Ky., diocese and a childhood victim of clerical sexual abuse, said the situation has gotten worse since the U.S. bishops met in Washington last November. At that meeting, bishops conference president Wilton Gregory warned that the bishops would oppose those who sought to use the crisis to advance their version of church reform.
Said Hayes: Theyre vulnerable because of what they have not done, because they have failed to provide any kind of leadership in any of this. Theyre not being victimized.
The ambiguity of Gregorys statement -- was he including victims of clerical sexual abuse in his critique? -- was appalling, said Hayes. What we need now is truth and clarity: Say what you mean and mean what you say, so that there is no mistake. And were not hearing that from the bishops.
Further, said Hayes, New York Cardinal Edward Egans recent snub of the lay review board investigating the scandals (NCR, Jan. 24) was indicative of the broader problem. Said Hayes, He probably spoke for a good many other bishops.
Meanwhile, Minnesota attorney Anderson recalled his first case against the Catholic church. The year was 1983. In the years since, the U.S. Catholic church has paid, according to conservative estimates, $350 million in settlements and damages to abuse victims. Twenty years ago there was no road map, no one had ever forced church officials to justify, under oath, how they dealt with the clerical child molesters.
The 1983 case was significant, said Anderson, because the client refused a $500,000 settlement that was offered with the contingency that the agreement be kept confidential; the client, said Anderson, refused to keep their secret.
And since that time, he continued, we have been suing the s--- out of them.
The conference attendees applauded and cheered. Go get em, yelled one.
Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
National Catholic Reporter, March 7, 2003