Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The Pope, Canon Law, and Survivors

Marci A. Hamilton

A Response to NYT Front Page Story on Saturday that the Vatican Was Considering Amending the Canon Law Statutes of Limitations for Child Sex Abuse

On Saturday, the New York Times reported that Cardinal William J. Levada had floated the idea that the Vatican was considering revising the canon law statutes of limitations (“SOLs”) for child sex abuse. This is rich.

It’s yet another shell game. The Catholic hierarchy is desperately hoping everyone will focus on the Pope’s daily few words about the sexual abuse crisis, his meeting with 5 survivors (handpicked so that none was a leader in the grassroots movement in support of SOL reform), and now the deficiencies of all things, canon law. If everyone can just keep following the bouncing ball, maybe they won’t notice that we have learned a single, crucial lesson from the clergy abuse debacle: the statutes of limitations for child sex abuse are much too short in virtually every state. They shut victims out of court before they are ready to go and they offer the cloak of anonymity so that predators can abuse one child after another.

Levada apparently is hoping that no one will notice that there are two types of statutes of limitations and that the one he is talking about is irrelevant in American courts. Change them all you want, but you won’t aid survivors.

The hierarchy’s lawyers have invoked the civil, secular SOLs against survivors of clergy sex abuse in every conceivable case. Not only have the bishops instructed their lawyers to push the statutes of limitations in civil courts to the hilt, they have paid their lobbyists, the state Catholic Conferences, as well as prestigious independent lobbying firms, untold millions to lobby state legislators against civil SOL reform. As I detail in Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children (Cambridge 2008), they have been a major force in opposition to the growing national grassroots movement to eliminate SOLs for child sex abuse in United States courts.

This is the issue — elimination of SOLs — that survivors and church reformers and other decent citizens have coalesced around in light of the many lessons taught by the clergy abuse scandals. And now Levada would mock that reform movement by suggesting that canon law reform is relevant or helpful.

With these comments on the canon law SOLs, the Vatican has edged up to the precipice– the hierarchy wants to appear as though it is taking meaningful action on the single most important issue to the survivor community — SOLs. But Levada is talking about reform that means little. Until the Pope or the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops calls off the American bishops and Catholic Conferences from lobbying against civil SOL reform, nothing he has to say about SOLs is relevant to the actual needs of survivors in the United States.

Moreover, this is just more evidence of the narcissism within the top echelon of the Vatican. Even if canon law reform might be relevant to Catholic survivors, what he is advocating is beside the point for the victims of incest, teacher abuse, and all the other sad forms of child sex abuse. All of these victims, and not just clergy abuse victims, suffer under the burden of overly short statutes of limitations in most states.

There is a more insidious side to Levada’s remarks as well. It is apparent that he wants to keep justice for church victims within the church. That is what got the hierarchy into trouble in the first place — the fear of public scandal that drove abuse underground and led to the coverup that created the ugliest of vicious cycles. If they had reported the first predator to the police after the first infraction, we might now have these predators on sex offender lists or, even better, in jail, away from children. Instead, their subterfuge made it possible for these predators to operate for decades grooming thousands of child victims while under the legal radar and then beyond the statutes of limitations.

Any American — Catholic or not — who believes in justice should take no comfort in what appears to be continuing resistance to involvement of the secular, legal authorities and courts on these issues. Only when the hierarchy’s priority becomes the safety of children without reference to its own selfish needs to avoid bad publicity, the release of ugly secrets, and financial accountability, will it ever be able to move to a higher ground. Nothing in the Pope’s visit or Levada’s should give victims any true comfort.

About The Author

Marci A. Hamilton

Marci A. Hamilton is author of God vs. the Gavel: The Perils of Extreme Religious Liberty (2007) and Justice Denied: What America Must Do To Protect Its Children (2008). She is one...

View profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!