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Fleecing the Catholic Church

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Aug 04, 2006

Remember when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries of England to fill the royal coffers? It seems like only yesterday that lawyers and judges were conspiring to find ways to treat the Church differently from all other institutions in an effort to get rich. Oh wait, it was only yesterday. And today.

The Cash Cow of Sex Abuse

Let me state at the outset that I do not condone sex abuse in the Catholic Church. But I do expect a fair response to it. Instead, the Catholic Church in the United States has been forced to pay out hundreds of millions of dollars in sex abuse settlements in recent years while other organizations with worse records, especially the public schools, go untouched. I don’t have exact figures for the country as a whole, but in California alone the total is up to a quarter of a billion dollars. So it may now be a billion or more nationwide. Some dioceses are bleeding to death while public and non-Catholic organizations are comparatively trouble-free. There is a constitutional name for this: it is called cruel and unusual punishment.

Perhaps this is not surprising, given American prejudices. The Church is both alien and large. It has substantial properties and a significant ability to collect contributions from those in the pews. However marginally, it still stands against many of the operative values of contemporary American culture. And its own failures have been aired over the past few years with remarkable (and praiseworthy) soul-searching and transparency. All of this makes the Church a nice target for lawyers, who seem also to be able to manufacture victims on demand.

Other Institutions

Before we consider how victims are being manufactured, let’s put the Church’s sex abuse problem in perspective. By every reputable study that has been done, the incidence of sexual abuse among Catholic clergy is at least as low and generally significantly lower than in any other comparable group. Other religious groups, day care centers, youth organizations, private schools and the public schools as a whole have abuse rates as high or substantially higher—not to mention many American families.

In a recent article in Crisis magazine, Fran Meier provides authoritative citations indicating that 6.7 percent of all public school students in the United States report being sexually abused physically. Another 3 to 4 percent have been abused in other ways by teachers or staff, including exposure to pornography, self-exposure, or other visual and verbal abuse of a sexual nature. Moreover, one in twenty teachers engages in sexual misconduct with students, and the pattern seems to be that such teachers are passed from school to school for a long time before losing their jobs.

This is an ongoing problem, but most discipline is kept within the confines of a school’s administration, without all the reporting and publicity which has recently characterized the Church’s handling of the same problem. Moreover, public schools are protected from significant suits for damages. There are generally severe limits on how much a plaintiff can be awarded in damages from a public school, perhaps a few hundred thousand dollars, not untold millions. The public schools do not make a good target for those who want to get rich. Neither, generally speaking, do small private organizations.

Manufacturing Victims

All informed Catholics probably know by now that the vast majority of clerical sexual abuse took place a generation ago and more. Since the 1980’s, the Church has quietly gotten considerably better in this regard, and what was left to be done has been done fairly rapidly under the public scrutiny following the scandals which finally came to public notice in 2004. It is necessary, I think, to state again that sex abuse is always a grave sin as well as a crime, and those who are victimized by it deserve our help and support, but it is also fair to state that the problem has not been addressed nearly as effectively in other institutions as it has been in the Church, despite all her faults.

The point here is that there are relatively few current or recent cases of sex abuse in the Catholic Church that have not been settled, and the statute of limitations has expired on the vast majority of all known cases, which are old. Therefore, to keep the cash flowing, attorneys and lawmakers have to change the rules. Aided by American prejudices and media frenzy, the statute of limitations on civil penalties for sex abuse is being retroactively repealed in one state after another. Once the limitations are removed, the attorneys can, in effect, advertise for clients. When this happened in California in 2003, one thousand new “victims” came forward, making claims about cases which were 20, 30 and 40 years old. They were “afraid” to come forward before, or their trauma had caused a mental block and they only just now “remembered”. Often their evidence was slim and sometimes the alleged perpetrators were long since dead. But the Church lives, and the money continues to flow.

No End in Sight

This won’t end anytime soon unless Catholics mobilize effectively to stop the selective prosecution of the Catholic Church and to protest unreasonably high settlements. One does not need to minimize the suffering of victims and their families in order to insist that the law be applied even-handedly, that the primary responsibility for abuse lies with the abuser, that large sums of money cannot solve the problems caused by sexual abuse, and that continuing punitive damages after an institution has largely resolved a problem are no longer capable of contributing to a solution.

This is, of course, an unpopular case for Catholics to make. In addition to facing legally irrelevant arguments concerning the Church’s non-profit status or the Church’s need to maintain the highest possible standards, one never wants to appear hard-hearted toward victims. But apart from a case involving the Church, would anyone really believe that, with so much money at stake, there is only one kind of victimization at work? Claims of psychological trauma should not be ignored, but psychological trauma is extremely hard to assess. In such cases, justice can be served only by extreme caution, irrefutable evidence, reasonable settlements, and punishment of those who are actually and personally guilty.

I believe we are witnessing the same old anti-Catholicism in a new form. We’re all disgusted by clerical sex abuse, and we’re certainly all sick of hearing about it. But as long as there’s money in it, we won’t stop hearing about it, and we have to stop cowering long enough to close ranks. This is essential to the survival of a battered and broken Church in America, for her enemies are riding high. Indeed, Henry VIII never had it so good.

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