The clergy sex abuse scandal that swept away Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law won’t ebb with his departure. It has taken on new force in the nation’s courthouses, potentially threatening the tenure of other Roman Catholic bishops.
Emboldened by the yearlong outpouring of secrets that led Pope John Paul II to accept Law’s resignation, alleged victims of sexual abuse by priests are stepping forward after years of shamed silence.
Lawyers, prosecutors, judges and state legislators are listening in shocked sympathy.
Psychological and political barriers that have restrained the American legal system from breaching the 2,000-year-old church’s accustomed secrecy are falling.
“There is a momentum here that’s hard to quantify,” says Jon Fleischaker, an attorney for the Louisville Courier-Journal, which this year has published church documents filed in 200 sex-abuse lawsuits. “But the fact that Law resigned you know, people smell blood.”
The Boston case started a chain reaction that became the biggest disgrace to hit the Catholic Church in America.
Law was the fifth U.S. bishop to resign this year but the only one forced out for sweeping problems with predator clerics under the rug.
The other four bishops in New York City, Milwaukee, Palm Beach, Fla., and Lexington, Ky. admitted to personal sexual indiscretions.
At least 325 of the nation’s 46,000 Catholic priests have been dismissed or have resigned from the ministry this year.
Thousands of adults nearly 550 in Boston alone, with more to come have filed suit over abuse they say occurred when they were boys and girls.
Some cases involve incidents that allegedly took place 50 years ago. Prosecutors have convened grand juries in more than a dozen cities to find out why the church hierarchy didn’t relay complaints against priests to police.
The prospect of being hit with barrage after barrage of costly judgments and settlements has led some archdioceses to suggest they might have to seek protection under federal bankruptcy laws.
The wave of legal action “is a tsunami, and it’s sweeping west from Boston,” says Joe Scott, spokesman for Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley.
A Catholic himself, Cooley has filed criminal charges against six priests. No U.S. prosecutor has filed more. Scott says that more filings are coming.
The fall of Law, 71, resulted from an alignment of players and facts that could be unique to the Boston Archdiocese, the nation’s fourth-largest with 2 million parishioners.
A tenacious local newspaper, a no-nonsense judge and aggressive plaintiffs’ attorneys combined to shatter a decades-old local custom in which courts essentially had helped the church keep its secrets secret by sealing records in civil cases that could have embarrassed the church and upset its followers.
Reporting a string of lawsuits against former priest John Geoghan, the Boston Globe last year persuaded Superior Court Judge Constance Sweeney to unseal archdiocesan records that identified him.
Later, a broader ruling by Sweeney a Catholic from western Massachusetts ordered the release of files involving sexual abuse allegations against any priest.
The records revealed that for decades, church superiors quietly had transferred priests they knew to be alleged pedophiles from parish to parish. Often the priests molested children in their new assignments.
The files contained documents in which Law praised and consoled the accused men, with little mention of the victims. There were cases of drug abuse by priests. One priest acknowledged to the Boston Globe that he had molested teen-age girls who had said they wanted to be nuns.
Sealing records has been just one defense move favored by church attorneys.
In many cases, the church claims that the First Amendment’s separation of church and state and its guarantee of religious freedom makes its records privileged information, says Jeffrey Anderson, a St. Paul lawyer who represents sexual abuse plaintiffs in several states.
But courts generally overrule the argument. Florida’s Supreme Court declared in March, for example, that church “conduct remains subject to regulation for the protection of society.”
Some plaintiffs’ lawyers say there’s no assurance that Law’s failure to keep his archdiocese’s paper trail private will make other bishops less combative.
“My expectation is that the church is going to go back into its ostrich act,” says Raymond Boucher, attorney for 140 alleged victims in California.
In Los Angeles, the nation’s largest archdiocese with 5 million Catholics, Cardinal Roger Mahony is sending mixed signals.
Last spring, after Cooley threatened a grand jury probe, Mahony yielded the names of priests he’d disciplined.
He and Cooley agreed to have a retired judge review accused priests’ records, and decide whether they should remain secret.
Mahony wants to use a similar process to deal with requests for records by prosecutors in Ventura County, Calif., but the officials are pressing him to simply hand over the records.
Mahony, who has headed the archdiocese since 1985, is bracing for more than 400 new lawsuits that church officials expect to be filed next year.
Last summer, California’s Legislature voted to suspend for 2003 the statute of limitations for filing childhood sexual abuse cases.
Some allegations against California priests date to the 1950s.
On Dec. 8, a pastoral letter from California’s 12 bishops was read from pulpits, warning of financial woes ahead and saying the church had been “falsely portrayed as a large corporation with deep pockets.”
Lawyers for Mahony say they’ll file a court challenge to the constitutionality of the new law.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys are gunning for Mahony, saying he’s been lax.
Anderson says Law’s downfall is “a foreshadowing of other events to come which means resignations.” Mahony “is the next on the list of princes of the church that are in the middle of this mess.”
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