This is the first of the two posts I promised, proving that the current ecclesiastical hierarchy continues to operate according to this long-debunked, wrong-headed principle:
Sexual abuse is a shameful private matter that should be kept from the public eye. If people know that clergymen have committed this crime, they will lose the faith. Therefore, it should be hushed up, at any cost.
Anyone who sexually abuses a minor commits a crime. The victim of the crime suffers a grave injury. One significant dimension of that injury: Crippling shame, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to communicate with others about what happened.
Indeed, there may be even more to this than many of us have thought. I spoke recently with a sex-abuse survivor who recounted how he had no memories whatsoever about being abused in his childhood, until the summer of 2018. Then the headlines about priest six-abuse shook loose in his mind an avalanche of memories. He thinks that his abuser knew how to cause the suppression of the memories. Some abusers may have that twisted psychological-manipulative skill.
Back to justice under law: The problem here is, criminal investigations and prosecutions generally rely on “warm” evidence. Investigating crimes committed in the distant past poses huge challenges.
Hence, we have “statutes of limitations” or “prescription periods.” (The latter is the term used in ecclesiastical law.) You can’t open a criminal investigation into a crime that happened decades ago.
A civil suit, on the other hand, differs in some important respects from a criminal case. The injured party sues the wrongdoer for damages. In such a case, the plaintiff does not seek a guilty verdict per se; the community itself is not mounting the case for the sake of preserving public peace. Rather, the injured party asks the judge to find the malefactor liable for the damage caused, which would require restitution.
Again, however, the passage of time makes the whole thing more difficult. It is harder for the court to establish facts. So there are statutes of limitations on civil cases, too.
All of this seems to leave sex-abuse survivors in a Catch-22.
Last year we considered the “Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program” of the Archdiocese of New York. At that point–February 2020–our beloved diocese of Richmond had just begun a similar program.
In New York, the IRCP ostensibly gave sex-abuse victims an opportunity to return to the Church and receive some modicum of justice, even after many decades had gone by. The survivor who blew the whistle on Theodore McCarrick for criminal sexual abuse did so by approaching the NY IRCP in 2017.
Something always seemed fishy, however. For one thing, the reconciliation program called itself ‘independent,’ even though the Archbishop established it and hired the lawyers to run it. For another, the IRCP refused to consider the question of guilt or innocence; payments were made with no admission of wrongdoing by anyone. Third, the program required sex-abuse survivors to sign away the right to sue, thereby protecting the archdiocese forever from the public scrutiny of a courtroom.
When the New York IRCP began, in late 2016, most sex-abuse survivors did not have the right to sue anyway. At that time, New York had one of the most limiting statutes of limitations on sex-abuse cases in the US. You only had until age 23 to sue.
In late 2019, however, that changed. New York State revised its law. Now you have until age 55 to sue. And the legislature also opened a one-year window for sex-abuse lawsuits, no matter when the abuse occurred. They have since extended the window for an extra year, since the virus closed the courts for long stretches of time last year.
It will take years for all the hundreds of new lawsuits to run their course. At least three of the eight dioceses of New York have filed for bankruptcy in the meantime (Rochester, Buffalo, and Long Island.)
This development–the extension of the statute of limitations–has led many of us to wonder about Cardinal Dolan’s real motivations in establishing the IRCP in the first place. Did he launch the program to try to pre-empt the legislative extension of the statute of limitations? Had the Cardinal come up with a last-ditch gimmick to prevent ecclesiastical bankruptcies? (Which ultimately failed to work.)
In last February’s post on this topic, I quoted a New-Yorker journalist extensively. He had asked Cardinal Dolan about why he established the IRCP. Through his spokesman, Dolan replied: “To help victims of sexual abuse, and for no other reason.”
Turns out the Cardinal had other reasons.
In December 2017, the lawyers that Dolan hired, Kenneth Feinberg and Camille Biros, spoke on a conference call. They were pitching the IRCP model to the diocesan lawyers in Syracuse, Buffalo, and Rochester. Feinberg and Biros outlined the program’s benefits. Not benefits for the victims, but for the institution.
“I think Cardinal Dolan feels it is providing the [Church] lawyers in Albany with additional persuasive powers not to re-open the statute of limitations,” Feinberg said.
He went on:
“The whole point is to get the release [from any future lawsuit.] So we offer $10,000. In Buffalo, maybe $5,000. Get the release. We want to be able to show [the legislators in the state capitol in] Albany that people are accepting the money and signing releases. You don’t need to change the statute.”
Feinberg explained the approach they took with survivors:
“If you don’t take what we’re offering, you don’t have to, but what is the alternative? Maybe Albany will change the law, but they haven’t yet.”
Biros went on to explain the IRCP’s strange definition of ‘independent.’
“I just want everyone to be aware that once we take over and implement the program, it remains an open dialogue with the diocese.”
Feinberg noted that the Archdiocese of New York had created both the rules for the IRCP and the “compensation matrix.”
Now, we would know nothing about this secret conference call of over three years ago, were it not for someone on the inside who finally ran out of patience with the endless ecclesiastical subterfuge. A few weeks ago, that person, whoever it is, handed over a copy of the transcript of the Feinberg-Biros conference call to ABC News. The quotes I have cited come from the ABC News report. (No one involved has disputed the transcript’s authenticity.)
From a purely craven, corrupt-businessman point-of-view, the ulterior motives behind the New York IRCP appear reasonable enough. ‘We can get a jump on the problem. The victims will take quick money, especially since right now they have no alternative. This will keep us out of bankruptcy.’
The holy Church, however, holds Herself up as something other than a corrupt business intent on maintaining flush bank accounts. The Church of Jesus Christ actually proposes to teach the world the true meaning of human dignity, as revealed by God in the mystery of Jesus Christ.
Mitchell Garabedian, the lawyer portrayed by Stanley Tucci in the movie Spotlight, put it like this:
“The statements reported by ABC place Cardinal Dolan in a compromising light and are disrespectful to survivors of clergy sexual abuse.”
The Survivors Network put it like this:
We have long known that Independent Reconciliation Programs like the one launched by the Archdiocese of New York in 2016 are designed less to support victims than they are to protect the assets and reputation of the Church… The backbone of the Church’s strategy is to appear to be working on behalf of victims when they are really trying to silence them…
We hope this leaked transcript will encourage survivors around the country to work towards reform that allows survivors to have their day in court… The Church-run programs aim to protect the institution at all costs.
The whole business reminds me about how eloquently Becky Ianni spoke, regarding our Richmond reconciliation program last October. Money helps. But the most important thing is information.
The incumbent prelates continue to bend every effort to prevent information about sex-abuse cases from becoming public. This serves their interest: self-preservation. If we knew the full extent of the facts about all the sex-abuse cases that remain covered-up, we would not hesitate to insist on many, many episcopal resignations.