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Issue Date:  January 20, 2006

Gumbleton reveals he was sexually abused by priest

Columbus, Ohio

Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit said publicly Jan. 11 that he was sexually abused by a priest 60 years ago while attending seminary.

Gumbleton, 75, an auxiliary bishop widely known as an advocate for the poor and for pacifist causes, made his claim in a statement to the Ohio House Judiciary Committee and later at a news conference. Gumbleton spoke in support of Ohio Senate Bill 17, pending legislation that would open a one-year window for victims to file lawsuits over sexual abuse, even if the abuse took place decades before.

Ohio’s bishops have fought the bill. The Ohio Senate unanimously approved the bill last March but it has since been stuck in the House Judiciary Committee.

Gumbleton, whose Sunday homilies are published weekly on the NCR Web site (The Peace Pulpit), is believed to be the first U.S. bishop to identify himself as a survivor of clerical sexual abuse. He said this is the first time in his life he has shared the story of his abuse with anyone. “I understand how hard it is for victims to speak up,” said Gumbleton. That difficulty is part of the reason he supports SB 17. The complete text of the bishop’s statement is in the Special Documents section of

The bill would allow civil cases for abuse allegations 20 years past the plaintiff’s 18th birthday, whereas current law places the limit at two years past the age of majority. SB 17 would strengthen mandatory reporting laws for bishops, priests, teachers and others who suspect child abuse.

The bill also provides for a one-year look-back period that would create a window where alleged victims could file suit for abuse that occurred up to 35 years ago. A similar law passed in California saw a deluge of lawsuits filed against Catholic priests and dioceses.

The Ohio bishops have repeatedly said they support all provisions of SB 17 with the exception of the look-back period.

Speaking last November for the Catholic Conference of Ohio, which represents Ohio’s bishops, Executive Director Timothy Luckhaupt told NCR that “This one-year look-back period does not do anything to protect kids.”

In a statement faxed to NCR Jan. 11, the Ohio Catholic Conference reiterated the bishops’ opposition to the look-back provision, calling it “retroactive legislation specifically prohibited by the Ohio constitution.”

While expressing sadness to learn that Gumbleton was a victim of abuse when he was young, the conference statement said his support of SB 17 is “his own personal opinion” and that Gumbleton did not speak for the bishops of Ohio.

“Healing is not achieved by lawsuits but by working with those who have suffered abuse, ministering to them pastorally and helping to meet their individual needs. This is what Ohio’s dioceses and its bishops are doing and will continue to do,” the conference statement said.

A statement from the Detroit archdiocese, Gumbleton’s home, carried similar sentiments. Cardinal Adam Maida of Detroit said he was “especially saddened” by the news that Gumbleton “was apparently a victim himself,” but that “the Detroit archdiocese was never made aware of this.”

Msgr. Ricardo Bass, Maida’s delegate for clergy matters, called Gumbleton’s experience “regrettable, and no doubt, it frames his personal opinion on the matter.” As for statutes of limitations, Bass said, such laws have “served our society well in protecting the rights of everyone.”

There is no time limit on a person’s bringing a complaint to the archdiocese, Bass said. Following diocesan policy, he said, Gumbleton could receive counseling assistance as needed.

In his testimony, Gumbleton said he supports the legislation because “I am persuaded that this is the most effective way to make all those responsible, bishops who protected priest-perpetrators as well as priests themselves, truly accountable for this tragedy and to deter similar recklessness or wrongdoing in the future, by any decision-makers, inside or outside the church.”

“By bringing these cases to full exposure and full accountability we have a better possibility of restoring credibility in church leaders as moral teachers and guides,” Gumbleton’s statement said.

Gumbleton says that full disclosure may cause the church pain and embarrassment and financial hardship, “But I am convinced that a settlement of every case by our court system is the only way to protect children and to heal the brokenness within the church.” Gumbleton went to Ohio at the invitation of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests.

In an interview with NCR Jan. 11, Gumbleton said he was abused “two or three times” during 1945 and 1946 when he was a 9th and 10th grade seminarian in Detroit. The priest who abused him engaged in “wrestling matches” and then put his hand down Gumbleton’s pants, the bishop said. “I knew it was strange, but at the time I was very naive and innocent. It wasn’t until much later that the event registered.”

The bishop declined to name the priest, saying he was long dead and citing a Latin phrase, nihil nisi bonum de mortuis, which he interpreted to mean he should say “nothing except good about the deceased.”

Gumbleton says the priest was probably in his 40s when the abuse occurred, and that he forgives him. He downplayed the abuse relative to the trauma other victims have suffered. It never got to the point where it maimed him beyond normal functioning, he said, but added that this was largely due to the fact that he didn’t really understand what happened until later. At the news conference, he said, “The more I think about it, the more I think how terrible it is.”

Gumbleton said his main motivation in speaking now is to expose any clerical abusers who have not yet been identified so that no more children will be harmed. He said that the U.S. bishops as a whole have failed to “act pastorally” in dealing with clerical abuse. “It’s sad the church must be compelled through a court of law to do what it should be doing pastorally,” he said.

Legislation similar to Ohio’s has been passed in Illinois and introduced in Pennsylvania and New York. Last month, a federal judge upheld the constitutionality of California’s law.

Although he has held various administrative duties at the parish and diocesan levels in Detroit, Gumbleton said he was never party to covering up clerical sexual abuse or even had “inside” knowledge of such a cover-up.

Gumbleton emphasized that he was speaking as an individual and did not represent the Catholic bishops nationally or any regional group of bishops.

Other speakers preceded Gumbleton in support of SB 17 including a priest from Iowa who claimed his brother suffered sexual abuse and Robert Scamardo, former general counsel for the Galveston-Houston archdiocese. Scamardo said he had the unique experience of having “fought” those claiming clerical abuse to his archdiocese as well as being a childhood abuse survivor himself.

Scamardo said that after a priest abused him he sought help from a church counselor who then abused him too. Scamardo said he understood how the current statute of limitations for civil cases can be “a very effective” tool for the bishops to avoid financial losses.

In another contrast with his fellow bishops, Gumbleton said he does not believe that the “zero tolerance” policy, adopted by the U.S. bishops in Dallas in 2002 as part of the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” is necessarily applicable to all cases. He did specify, however, that he would only allow a priest to reenter ministry if the circumstances were extraordinary and the priest was closely monitored.

Even so, Gumbleton laid blame at the feet of the U.S. bishops for their role in the abuse scandals and said bishops who knowingly allowed pedophiles to keep abusing should not hold power. “There’s no gray area for bishops who move perpetrators from place to place,” he said.

Gumbleton also said he supports criminal prosecution for bishops who aid abusers: “Anyone who committed a crime should be brought to account.”

In an interview with The Washington Post, Mark Chopko, general counsel to the U.S. bishops’ conference, said the bishops nationally have not taken a stand on the issue, but that Catholic lobbyists at the state level have strongly opposed one-year windows.

What happened to Gumbleton and other victims is “terrible, just terrible,” Chopko said. “But is the just thing basically to make the patrimony or the treasury of the church vulnerable? We do want to assist victims, and encourage healing, and even do some kinds of financial assistance if that’s warranted. But the idea that ‘let’s all go to the mattresses here and fight about this in the law courts’ -- we think that’s unjust to everybody.”

Bill Frogameni is a freelance writer living in Ann Arbor, Mich. He has written extensively about clerical sex abuse in Toledo, Ohio, and has contributed to and other outlets.

National Catholic Reporter, January 20, 2006

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