Our diocese (Harrisburg, PA) recently sent out a letter that it was declaring bankruptcy in view of oncoming lawsuits by presumed victims of sexual abuse. See here for a detailed account. As a member of this diocese, I received the news with mixed emotions. Would this bankruptcy negate legitimate claims of sexual abuse? And, more selfishly, what would this do to our gift annuity? That some 20 Dioceses had previously declared bankruptcy did not mitigate that this was happening in my backyard.
After I read more about this (see the link above), I was reassured on both counts. First, the bankruptcy would insure that claimants previously awarded damages would receive damages from the fund set up by the Diocese for sexual abuse cases. New and very large damages could not wipe out the fund. Second, special gifts (and I interpret this to mean gift annuities) were privileged.
I’ll not say anymore here about the Harrisburg bankruptcy declaration, but will make some general comments about lawsuits, bankruptcy, and reparation. I’ll speak to the situation in my own diocese, Harrisburg, since that’s the one with which I’m familiar.
First, let me say that I admire Bishop Ronald Gainer, our bishop. In my opinion, he is liturgically and dogmatically conservative, but not in a showy way. For example, he’s instituted “The Prayer to St. Michael” as obligatory after every Mass. That being said, I don’t believe our diocese has been a hotbed of immoral activity. I know of two priests in our Deanery (one was discharged; the other died before the accusation) who have been accused of immoral activity against minors. Let me add that I also know of four teachers in the public schools (in the same area) who have been accused of immoral acts against minors or possessing child porn.
In Pennsylvania the Democrat District Attorney, Josh Shapiro, seems to be conducting a vendetta against the Catholic Church. He’s persecuted The Little Sisters of the Poor and been more than vigorous in acting against Pennsylvania Catholic Dioceses for concealing purported sexual abuse cases (see here). For the latter action he has been praised by such newsworthy organs as the NY Times and Salon.com.
HOW DOES THE CHURCH ATONE FOR CHILD ABUSE?
But politics aside, let’s consider the moral questions raised by abuse, proving abuse, and compensating for abuse. I can’t cite statistics (and I’m not sure whether accurate statistics are available), but I would believe that most of these abuse cases involve homosexual activity involving teenagers, rather than against children, in other words, homosexual activity rather than pedophilia.
Here are some questions I’ll raise, but not answer.
- Does the standard Anglo-Saxon legal principle, “innocent until proven guilty,” apply in cases of such abuse?
- If the statute of limitations is extended to 40, 50, 60 years, will memories prove reliable?
- If the supposed abuser, the priest, has died before the accusation, how can the accusation be defended?
- If millions of dollars are offered to the presumed victim as restitution, will that in itself compensate for the harm done?
- Will the prospect of financial gain attract litigants (plaintiffs and lawyers) who are not concerned with restitution but only financial gain?
- If the immoral acts were consensual, does that mitigate their immorality? (I have my own answer to that, but I’ll leave the question open.)
- Finally, and this is the most important question, how can the Church (diocese, parish, priest) atone for the harm done?
I’ll be interested in seeing what answers (if any) comments might yield. The questions above don’t speak to preventing such acts in the future. I assume that actions taken by the diocese (and the Church) will, if not eliminate them altogether, at least greatly diminish their frequency.