The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Justice is coming, slowly, in clergy sex abuse cases

Pope Francis waves from a window during the Regina Caeli prayer in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on May 8. (Vatican Media via Reuters)
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The road toward justice for the victims of clergy sex abuse has been long, tortuous and littered with legal minefields. But increasingly in the past few years, it has led to milestones involving accountability for the Catholic Church, and restitution for individuals preyed upon as children. That it has taken two decades in many cases is maddening, but breakthroughs even at this late date are critically important.

In April, a Catholic diocese in the Philadelphia suburbs of southern New Jersey agreed to pay nearly $88 million to settle claims by several hundred people, many of them now elderly, who say they were abused as children. For many of the 300 or so plaintiffs in the Diocese of Camden, it will mean payouts in the range of $300,000, with the possibility of additional amounts stemming from separate lawsuits against insurance companies, parishes and schools.

The Camden settlement was among the biggest in the nation, larger even than one in Boston, where the first revelations surfaced 20 years ago of systematic church involvement in covering up clergy sex abuse. It is also partly the legacy of a blockbuster 2018 grand jury report in Pennsylvania that documented allegations against more than 300 priests accused of abusing more than 1,000 children over decades.

The effect of that report was to overcome powerful interests, including the Catholic Church, private schools and insurance companies, that had lobbied successfully in state legislatures to thwart restitution and accountability by impeding sex abuse cases against minors stretching back for decades. In particular, they blocked the establishment of so-called look-back windows that would enable lawsuits to be filed for a finite period well after statutes of limitation had expired — a key reform given that many victims of childhood abuse take years to come to grips with the traumas they have suffered. That dam of obstruction was broken after the Pennsylvania report, including by legislation enacted in New York, New Jersey and more than a dozen other states.

Relaxed statutes of limitations have meant scores of bankruptcy filings by dioceses as well as a tsunami of lawsuits by victims. The downside is upheaval in the Catholic Church, an institution that remains a touchstone for millions of Americans. The upside is, if not a sense of closure, at least an acknowledgment of the damage done, and trauma inflicted, across U.S. communities. Prayers for the victims were inadequate; they deserved, and in many cases have now received, legal redress of their pain and grievances.

This story is not over, nor should it be. Last year, Pope Francis ordered changes in the church’s own penal code to allow clerics who leverage power imbalances to abuse not only children but also adults to be expelled from the priesthood. However, the Vatican has continued to resist uniform reporting of child abuse to civil authorities, which it says could put clergy at risk in some countries. In both the United States and overseas, major new reports have continued to document the scale and scope of abuse over decades. That important work must continue.

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