Pope Headed for Policy Clash

The Pope Is Heading for a Public Policy Clash for Which He Appears Unprepared

Marci Hamilton

It is highly unlikely that Vatican officials adequately have prepared Pope Benedict XVI this week for the American mood on clergy abuse. Those inside the Vatican have been quoted recently as saying the American response was “exaggerated” and the Pope might not even address the child sex abuse issues. When objections were raised, though, the official response became that he would advocate “healing and reconciliation.” Good luck.

Those advising the Pope seem to have grievously underestimated the energy of the grassroots movement that has grown with astonishing speed since the Boston Globe broke the story of institutional cover up of child abuse within the Boston Archdiocese.

Marci’s commentary on CNN.com

On the Constitutionality of the death penalty for child rape

Who do you think is the most active group in the United States opposing legislation to reform the laws of child sex abuse? The answer is: the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. Opposition to reform of the statutes of limitations for child sex abuse is one of the top priorities for Catholic Conferences (the lobbyists for the bishops in each state) around the country.

This is a key legislative arena for the hierarchy of the American Roman Catholic Church. For example, during hearings in Wisconsin, Archbishop Timothy Dolan himself not only appeared before a Senate committee to testify against the legislation but stayed for much of the hearing. (I testified in favor and advocate such legislation in my new book, Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children (Cambridge 2008)).

The Pope is going to be hearing, no doubt, from a variety of organizations that have been mobilized since Boston broke. Three organizations have become very sophisticated responders to clergy abuse issues – SNAP (the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests); VOTF (Voice of the Faithful, a group dedicated to reform of the church in light of the clergy abuse crisis); and bishopaccountability.org (a website that has amassed a jaw-dropping amount of information about child predators and the cover up). At the same time, a national organization, NAPSAC (National Association to Prevent the Sexual Abuse of Children) has been formed for the purpose of supporting legislation to end statutes of limitations for child sex abuse and educating professionals about child sex abuse dealing with children.

But the central players in the movement are not the only ones pointing to the elephant in the Pope’s interview room: journalist Christopher Hitchens commented on Friday on washingtonpost.com that “If Ratzinger is not asked at every stop he makes, and in level yet firm tones, why he and the Vatican continue to shelter Cardinal Law, our profession will have shamed and disgraced itself . . . . What we need to hear is his reason for giving sinecure and asylum to the man who organized and excused the rape and torture of tens of thousands of American children.”

That is a truly remarkable statement. Not so long ago, when the Boston cover-up broke, there were major newspapers that hesitated to cover the story in any detail because they did not want to give offense to the Church. Now we have a reporter saying that the Pope himself must be questioned aggressively about his handling of clergy abuse. That should give every survivor in the United States hope as it gives the Pope pause.


3 Responses

  1. “the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. Opposition to reform of the statutes of limitations for child sex abuse is one of the top priorities for Catholic Conferences (the lobbyists for the bishops in each state) around the country.”

    Would you be willing to examine the proposed reforms to these laws and statues (one wonders why there were statues to begin with…) and how they would affect public schools where some studies have suggested that as many as one in 10 students have had some sort of inappropriate proposition, contact, coercion or other problematic (and prosecutable) episode? In a goodly number of states these civil servants that we are compelled to subject our children to if we cannot afford private school or homeschooling are protected with liability caps.

    Non-Catholic denominations have dealt with all the same problems at a rate just as bad – but their size and wealth (or lack thereof) have not made them a target of lawsuits – what could be gained from suing the peniless? And “First Church of the Lord, Reformed Catanogga Synod minister accused of abuse” NEVER sounds as good in the headlines as “Priest accused!”

    One wonders if the revision of statutes which will affect one institution the worst isn’t intended to do just that. Surely, children molested by school teachers (and their attorneys) deserve multi-million dollar settlements, don’t they?

    I have been following the visit closely thus far, and haven’t quite seen the clash, we have a few days to go.

  2. In “Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children,” I advocate the elimination of statutes
    of limitations for all victims of child sexual abuse, regardless of perpetrator or organization fostering the abuse.
    The public schools are as much to blame for the extraordinarily high number of victims in the United States
    as any other organization. The hierarchy, however, is the most vocal opponent to such reform. What is most ironic
    is that they are spending so much time lobbying for their own interests and against the interests of millions of victims
    from schools and the largest group, from incest.


  3. Our Philadelphia Archdiocesan legal counsel surely doesn’t discriminate—whether the victims are young children brutalized by pedophilia or the elderly church attendees, they are dispatched in the same cold, dispassionate, and un-Christlike manner. This archdiocesan legal tradition exists solely to protect our archdiocesan leaders, lay and religious, from any accountability and liability. What would Jesus do?

    (1) In the National Catholic Reporter 1999, the current Philadelphia archdiocesan counsel states:
    “No matter how vigilant a pastor or principal is, he or she may still face a lawsuit, said Timothy Coyne, who represents the Philadelphia archdiocese and various religious orders. “The little old lady who says her beads daily in church will sue you if she slips and falls in church,” he warned. Coyne told priests to regard lawyers as their friends and to “call your lawyer even before you call the chancery or your insurer.” One wonders if Mr. Coyne ever sits next to elderly women when he attends Mass.
    (2)C. Clark Hodgson, long-time counsel to the Philadelphia Archdiocese was quoted in a local newspaper:
    “Church officials were not obligated by state law to report sex-abuse cases to civil authorities unless the actual child victim notified the church personally. If the child’s parent filed the complaint with the archdiocese, however, church officials did not have to notify police.
    Mr. Hodgson was subsequently awarded the St. Thomas More Award 2006 from the St. Thomas More Society of Philadelphia (Catholic lawyers). Remarkably, St. Thomas More was martyred for his faith because he was a champion for following the “spirit of the law”, not the “letter of the law.” What is the likelihood that a young, innocent and vulnerable school age child who was subject to the humiliation, degradation and physical sexual abuse by a clergy member would have the strength to come forward when this same victim would feel so ashamed, broken, horrified and bewildered? Our archdiocesan attorneys were sure to exploit the legal loophole re reporting such pedophilia to authorities. This conduct was KNOWINGLY, DELIBERATELY and CONSCIOUSLY performed by Church attorneys at the expense of the child’s physical, emotional, psychological and moral well-being and survival. What else can be said?
    (3) William Sasso, Chairman, Stradley and Ronon, according to the firm’s website:
    “Attesting to Stradley Ronon’s strength in this area, we have long served as general counsel to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.”
    “An attorney for the archdiocese, William R. Sasso accused the report of exhibiting religious bias because it did not investigate allegations of child sex abuse in other denominations.
    “As a lawyer, as an individual who has seen similar reports, I find it to be biased and anti-Catholic,” Sasso said.
    Interestingly, on the firm’s website, there is a picture of Mr. Sasso and Bono at a dinner where Bono was honored for his humanitarian efforts and compassion to those children at risk in Africa. And what did Mr. Sasso do when archdiocesan children were not only victimized and/or abused over the years but others put in danger when the abusing priests were moved from one location to another?
    (4) Mark Chopko, former counsel to US Bishops, and now head of the non-profit group at Sasso’s law firm. I particularly liked reading a summary of one of his legal arguments where he claimed that diocesan management was not liable for clergy sexual abuse behavior because the priest’s religious functioning was protected behavior by our constitution.

    In light the Philadelphia Archdiocese’s duplicity, treachery and chicanery that has been clearly documented and substantiated, I personally would like the answer to the following question:
    How are Archdiocesan attorneys like William Sasso, C. Clark Hodgson and Mark Chopko actually able to sleep at night knowing that former-priest predators are living throughout our communities and pose a “clear and present danger” to the youngest, most innocent and vulnerable in our communities?

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