A California bill to retroactively abolish the statute of limitations for sex abuse claims targets the Catholic Church while public schools remain exempt.
Not a single New Hampshire newspaper had anything to say in print about revelations regarding my trial and imprisonment reported on May 11 in The Wall Street Journal. Some have found that odd given the local media penchant for exploiting in front page headlines the scandal of accused priests when it conveniently helped sell their newspapers. There is a lot going on beneath the surface up here, however.
The now retired editor and vice-president for news of New Hampshire’s largest newspaper wrote editorials over the last 25 years that vilified bishops and accused priests, including me. Minor Constitutional niceties such as due process and a presumption of innocence did not stay his pen. Last month, that former editor was charged with eight felony indictments for alleged possession of a prolific collection of child pornography. I will not name him here out of respect for HIS right to due process and a presumption of innocence. However, the entire affair lends substance to my most controversial post on These Stone Walls: “Be Wary of Crusaders! The Devil Sigmund Freud Knew Only too Well.”
And unlike my charges and trial, news of that former editor’s indictments never reached the front page of the newspaper he led for 25 years. The story was covered in innocuous little blurbs in the hinterlands of less intense news in the inner pages. It is perhaps for duplicity such as this that Americans are jaded about the press. In “A Double-Trouble Scandal for Obama” (May 31, 2013) Wall Street Journal political columnist Kimberly Strassel cited a Quinnipiac pole on recent White House scandals:
“A mere 15% [of Americans] thought the Justice Department’s seizure of press records was a big deal . . . Most Americans don’t much care what happens to the press, and if anything wouldn’t mind seeing it get some grief.”
I am not among those Americans. A free press is an entrenched and necessary component of the survival of democracy, and it must remain free to contribute to the checks and balances of government that human nature requires. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. That’s a point I covered in full force last week in “Freedom, Catholic Free Speech, and a Partisan IRS Scandal.”
My criticism that the local secular news media has been highly selective in the news it highlights and exposes goes double for the Catholic press. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recently issued the findings of a 2012 audit of compliance with its 2002 “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.” The audit brought some good news. In 2012, U.S. dioceses saw the fewest number of clergy abuse claims since audits began in 2004.
A front page article by Joan Frawley Desmond in the National Catholic Register (June 2-15, 2013) covered that story, but it became largely obscured in the shadow of another story. The article focused on revelations about a previously accused Newark, NJ priest who failed to observe the strict boundaries set for him. He was forced to resign in early May. The decision of Register editors to combine these two stories to put the audit’s good news in perspective was irksome. The Register has had no reaction whatsoever to The Wall Street Journal revelations about the role of money and the witch hunt aura of injustice that has propelled some aspects of this scandal.
In fairness, the NC Register is not unique in this. Not a single Catholic print publication in America covered the story exposed in The Wall Street Journal. Presenting American Catholics with half the story is not reliable journalism. Once again, I am strongly reminded of a previous and controversial TSW post: “The Catholic Press Needs to Get Over its Father Maciel Syndrome.”
In contrast, however, the British Independent Catholic News carried the story prominently (“US journalist champions case of wrongly convicted priest Fr. Gordon MacRae,” May 28, 2013). Several U.S. Catholic blogs covered it with courage. Among them was a May 26, 2013 post on The Pastor’s Page by Father George Welzbacher, a St. Paul, Minnesota priest who marked 62 years of priesthood early this month. Fr. Welzbacher wrote:
“On this weekend when no fewer than ten highly intelligent and zealous young men are offering their First Solemn Masses as priests newly ordained for service to our archdiocese . . . may I share with you [Dorothy] Rabinowitz’ comment on a striking instance of how greed and hatred, abetted by perjury, seemed to have shaped the orchestration of a monstrous miscarriage of justice. In an era when certain attorneys keen for the scent have built a career on litigation aimed at Catholic priests . . . a report written by Ms. Rabinowitz, reprinted here, offers a timely corrective to the lynch-mob mentality that some of those attorneys have so effectively exploited.”
THE COMING SHAKEDOWN
There is an urgent development that emerged in national news last month, and once again it became known because of the singular integrity of this nation’s largest secular newspaper, The Wall Street Journal. The U.S. Bishops’ audit report that new accusations are winding down in the Church is good news, but there are signs that it isn’t going to stay that way. After the expenditure of over $3 billion in settlements of claims in the U.S. alone, the flow of money has dried up without every U.S. diocese going bankrupt. Some contingency lawyers, aided and abetted by a few naive left-leaning politicians, are simply not having it.
The flow of rhetoric is as tainted as the flow of money. There is a fact about sexual abuse and statutes of limitations that many U.S. Catholics do not understand. When contingency lawyers and victim groups like SNAP call for discarding statutes of limitations in sex abuse claims in order to “protect children” and “hold the molesters accountable,” there is something highly disingenuous in the sales pitch.
The U.S. Supreme Court has barred retroactive extensions of statutes of limitations in criminal cases as unconstitutional. Statutes of limitations for the criminal prosecution of sexual offenders can be extended – and indeed have been extended in almost every state since the 1980s – but the extension CANNOT be applied retroactively. That is now universal in American law, and it cannot be altered. Revised statutes of limitations can be applied to present and future cases, but not the past.
Calls to change statutes of limitations to “hold molesters accountable” do nothing of the sort. The only such statutes that can be changed to apply retroactively are civil statutes to allow for lawsuits. These changes simply subject the Church of the present to claims for damages from the distant past – usually with no evidence or corroboration at all. I wrote of the great scam that is sold under the guise of justice in proposals for so-called “window legislation” in “Due Process for Accused Priests,” a 2009 article in Catalyst, the Journal of the Catholic League.
In 2003, the California legislature passed a controversial bill that opened a one-year window for adults to file sex abuse claims in cases that far exceeded the existing statute of limitations. Under current California law, plaintiffs have until the age of 26 to file such claims. When the one-year window was opened in 2003 nearly 1,000 claims emerged against California Catholic dioceses and religious orders. Most of the claims brought forward were decades old making corroboration a futile effort not even bothered with.
No effort was made to distinguish true adult victims of childhood abuse from scammers using the window to file fictitious claims.
Many of the priests accused were long since deceased. The damage awards and panic-driven mediated settlements in the one-year window amounted to $1.2 billion. The Media Report published an “Exclusive Report” on this by a former Los Angeles County District Attorney and an F.B.I. agent who theorized – with some proof – that fully fifty percent of these claims were without merit.
Since then, the flow of Church money to California contingency lawyers has dried up, but there are still dioceses that have not gone bankrupt. So new legislation is underway in California – with the potential to spread through every U.S. state – to once again set aside the civil statute of limitations to allow thousands of new and unproven claims to be brought forward. The alarming double-standard: the retroactive window will apply only to claims against Catholic institutions and other nonprofits while exempting public schools, state colleges, and other taxpayer funded public agencies and institutions.
THE GLARING DOUBLE STANDARD
If you’re not yet alarmed by this, then read an editorial in The Wall Street Journal entitled “Sacramento’s Nonprofit Shakedown” (May 13, 2013). The Journal editor’s subtitle is far more alarming: “Democrats and the tort bar target the Catholic Church.” According to the editorial, the supermajority Democratic California legislature, propelled forward by a few contingency lawyers, wants to again set aside the statutes of limitations for another year of uncorroborated claims and lawsuits. According to the editorial:
“Democrats now want to give adults who exceed this statute of limitations another chance to file claims next year . . . Plaintiff attorneys who claim to be seeking justice for victims are merely seeking to line their own pockets by exploiting public sympathies . . . The ultimate victims of this legal shakedown will be nonprofits in California and the people they serve.”
In “Due Process for Accused Priests,” I wrote with extensive quotes and corroboration about the scandalous process in my own Diocese in the settlement of claims against priests. The quality of due process for priests accused during mediated settlements is highly suspect. A New Hampshire contingency lawyer brought forward in 2002 his first of several rounds of mediated settlements in which 28 priests of the Diocese of Manchester were accused by 62 adults in claims ranging from between 1950 and the later 1980s.
According to a newspaper article at the time, “During settlement negotiations, diocesan officials did not press for details such as dates and allegations for every claim. I’ve never seen anything like it,” the much richer contingency lawyer declared to the NH Union Leader. This was the first of at least five annual rounds of mediated settlements.
The standing statute of limitations for civil claims in New Hampshire is three years. However, a 1996 NH Superior Court ruling declared that in cases against Catholic priests, the three year statute of limitations begins to toll only when “a victim becomes aware he/she was injured.” That same standard has already been discounted in claims against public schools and teachers. It was discounted by the same court that issued the ruling against the Diocese of Manchester which never appealed it. That standard for interpreting the statute of limitations applies only to accusers of priests. What is now evolving in California makes one thing crystal clear: public school teachers have a union. Catholic priests do not.
This story is an ominous example of “Why the Catholic Abuse Narrative Needs a Fraud Task Force,” a recent post on These Stone Walls. The tort lawyers making a killing on these ancient claims and mediated settlements do nothing whatsoever to vet or corroborate them. In fact, no one in the U.S. Church does either. TSW reader Dorothy Stein – ever vigilant and never at a loss for words that cut to the heart of things – posted a comment on The Wall Street Journal editorial about pending new “window legislation” in California. I’m giving her this week’s last word:
“Just weeks ago in these pages, Dorothy Rabinowitz exposed one of these Catholic shakedowns in powerful prose . . . And ‘shakedown’ is exactly what this is. It is the result of tort lawyers making the rules for tort lawyers, a group over-represented in state legislatures throughout America and wielding a potent lobby. It is an affront to justice that public institutions such as public schools remain exempt from shakedowns that apply only to the Catholic Church and foster accusations only against Catholic priests.”