IN AN extraordinary communique to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, Pope Francis on Monday acknowledged the “atrocities” committed by pedophile priests and the church hierarchy that systematically covered up their crimes, recognized the inadequacy of efforts “to beg pardon” and admitted that the victims’ “wounds never go away.” In so doing, the pontiff provided a powerful rationale for dropping the church’s long-standing opposition to allowing decades-old cases of rape and molestation by priests to be subject to prosecution and lawsuits.
At last, after years of half-measures and tone-deaf remarks, the pope seems to have woken up to the scale of abuse and corruption sanctioned by the church. The question now is whether he is willing or able to turn the tide of institutional resistance in the Vatican and dioceses worldwide that too often has blocked victims from seeking justice and recompense.
Throughout the United States, top church officials and lobbyists routinely press state lawmakers not to extend the time frame for prosecutors to bring charges against abusive priests and for victims to file civil suits. There has been no significant relaxation in the church’s opposition to extending statutes of limitations, which vary state to state — not after the revelations, in 2002, of pervasive abuse in Massachusetts, nor after similar exposés in other cities and dioceses.
If a watershed moment was needed, it has arrived with the publication of an exhaustive grand jury report in Pennsylvania, which provides stunning detail on at least 1,000 children allegedly raped or abused by more than 300 priests over decades, all covered up under a blanket of secrecy, denial and covert payoffs. That report, coupled with the pope’s unequivocal stance, should serve as impetus for the church to drop its resistance to justice; otherwise, the only conclusion is that the institution itself is irredeemable.
Many states have extended or dropped limits on the number of years within which prosecutors are able to charge child sexual abuse felonies. In other states, including Maryland, New York and Pennsylvania, efforts to extend criminal statutes of limitations have failed. And the church has spent millions of dollars fighting changes in statutes of limitations to give victims, who often cannot speak for decades about the abuse they suffered as children, more time to bring civil lawsuits.
The grand jury report in Pennsylvania recommended eliminating the state’s statute of limitations for prosecutions in such cases and opening a two-year window for civil lawsuits that would enable people victimized as children to sue. Still, there is no sign that the church and its lobbyists will relax their unstinting attacks on legislation — and often on individual lawmakers — favoring extended limits for prosecution or lawsuits. (Under current law, child victims of sexual assault can file suits only until age 30.) In some instances, the church has singled out Catholic lawmakers in Pennsylvania who have backed such changes, disinviting them from church events and telling them they had betrayed their faith.
That conduct, replicated nationwide, effectively negates the pope’s stirring words of remorse and resolve. Until and unless the Vatican reaches down to individual dioceses and parishes, there will be too little real reform in the Catholic Church.