In Portland, a bankruptcy settlement was reached.Several years ago, the Portland Archdiocese sought federal bankruptcyprotection to protect its assets, on the eve of trial implicatingnumerous victims of clergy abuse. After wrangling for several yearsover whether the parishes are the property of the Archdiocese, theChurch and the victims came to a settlement this week. It is not easyfor victims to wait out such extended proceedings, and, they should begiven credit for hanging in there.
The irony here is that thesettlementwas paidcompletely out of insurance proceeds and the sale ofproperty (as, indeed, the vast majority of settlements across thecountry, including the large settlements in Boston, have been). Noparishes or school were affected by the settlement. In other words, theArchdiocese's wealth placed it in a position to settle with thesevictims from the very beginning, making the over $17 million it spenton professional fees seem hardly justified, and the bankruptcy filingnothing more than a delaying tactic. The settlement also laid to rest(once again) the hierarchy's oft-repeated argument that victims havedriven dioceses to litigation the Church cannot afford withoutundermining its provision of essential services and its religiouspractices.
An Equivocal Development: The Adam Walsh Law
There was one development that is a partial victory at best: Congress passed the Adam Walsh Law. As I discussed in an earlier column,the bill offered some protections for children, but did not address thereform that is an absolute necessity if victims of childhood sexualabuse are to be favored over predators: the abolition of the statutesof limitations. This reform needs to take place on both the criminaland civil sides of the law. In the civil context, it needs to be bothretrospective and forward-moving, and in the case of the criminalcontext, only forward-looking, because the Supreme Court held in Stogner v. Californiathat retrospective extension of criminal statutes of limitations isunconstitutional. Without the legal action barred by overly shortstatutes of limitations, the identities of abusers are secret.
Despitethe passage of the bill, this key problem remains: Even if crimes arere-defined and reporting of predator's identities improves, we arestill only obtaining the identities of only about 10% of abusers. Thus,unless the statutes of limitations are abolished or dramaticallylengthened, all the bells and whistles of a law like the Adam Walsh Lawwill do little to reduce the strong threat to children posed bypredators who continue to be able to operate in the dark, essentiallyinvisible to society.
Setbacks in the Movement for Children's Civil Rights
The Foley Report turned out to be toothless. Anotherlarge, powerful organization dominated by men - the House ofRepresentatives -- rendered only a slap on the wrist when the worldfound out that one of its own, Mark Foley, had been preying on underageHouse pages. The good news is that Foley's low-life antics wererevealed to the public. The bad news is that the Foley Report, issuedby the House Ethics Committee, is the best recent example of how thisculture favors predators over children.
According to thecommittee, though the House leadership and its staff knew about Foley'soffensive activities for years and did nothing, its blatant inaction inthe face of this misconduct violated no House rules. Some have calledpublicly for the end of the page program -- a tremendous opportunityfor young people to learn about their government -- but that's notcalled for. What is called for is an outcry for a change in House rulesto make Members accountable and responsible for the children they hireas part of the page program. The idea that having a page program is toogreat a moral hazard for Members is appalling; meaningful reform in theinterest of children is much preferable to junking the program, but, ofcourse, reform would mean accountability. The solution to the problemthe House Ethics Committee could barely bring itself to identify is notto eliminate children from this wonderful opportunity, but to forceadults to behave when children are present
Doubtless, themembers of the House are just thankful that the committee was able tohold off on its report until after the election. What this shows isthat the risk to children in this culture from predatory adultspervades society, and is definitely not the select province ofreligious organizations; rather, it has also infected the most directlyrepresentative branch of our government. Moreover, as noted above,Congress's passage of the Adam Walsh bill should do little to saveeither House from reprobation, when it comes to the plight of thevictims of childhood sexual abuse.
Colorado legislation to protect children is killed. ArchbishopChaput of Denver managed to kill Colorado legislation that would haveextended the criminal statute of limitations for childhood sexualabuse, and extended the civil statute of limitations bothretrospectively and prospectively. Such reforms harm institutions withhistories of employee child abuse, because they typically bring tolight the identities of numerous child predators unknown to date. Thestatute of limitations in child abuse is a perverse legal instrumentthat permits the predator to gain peace of mind after a given period oftime, as it rarely permits the victim to have either justice or peaceof mind.
Chaput hired a pricey public relations firm thatperpetuated the hierarchy's poverty propaganda - claims that areseverely undermined by the Portland Archdiocese bankruptcy settlementwhich, as noted above, indicated that the Church can function quitewell while also settling its cases.
Now, Chaput is publiclypatting himself on the back for an inadequately-funded victims'"compensation" fund, and making public statements (obviously packagedby his P.R. firm) about how he has to consider the needs of his"innocent" current parishioners, as well as those of the victims. Ofcourse, he does not begin to take the sort of responsibility thehierarchy ought to, for creating the very victims he is now trying totriangulate. Nor does he explain to his parishioners that the advantageof a fund is that it permits him to continue to conceal the identitiesof those clergy accused of childhood sexual abuse.
He seemsincapable of grasping the fact that the vast majority of victims wantpublic justice, not simply money for counseling. That is why only 1/3of the victims have come forward in response to his "generous" offer.
Hecompletely glosses over the fact that he has never issued a statementof the diocese's actual wealth (translate: land ownership not dedicatedto religious use, which typically runs into the hundreds of millions ofdollars in a city the size of Denver), which would very likely provethat he does not, in fact, have to make difficult choices betweenmembers and hierarchy-generated victims. This is not an either-orproposition --the victims can be compensated, justice can be done, andthe Archdiocese can easily continue to operate as it had in the past.
An Overview - and A Suggestion for the Future
Onbalance, 2006 could have been better for our nation's children, but itcould have been worse, as well. Recent studies indicate that at least25% of children are, at one time or another, the victims of adultsexual behavior, which means that child sexual abuse is the mostpervasive public health and criminal justice problem affecting childrenin the country -- far outstripping issues like childhood cancer,autism, or poverty.
This large cohort of our society thatcannot vote, and therefore frequently sits on the bottom rung of theladder of public priorities, deserves better. Those in the power elitemust push child abuse victims' needs up that ladder. Children's health(and education) issues receive huge philanthropic support from thelikes of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has givenenormous amounts for health and education issues around the world. Themind-boggling number of victims of childhood sexual abuse right here inthis country -- past, present, and future -- also need A-list championsfor this civil rights movement to flourish.