Saturday, May 1, 2010

Connecticut's Catholic Church Just Doesn't Get It

Connecticut's Catholic Church Just Doesn't Get It

Huffington Post
As last week's column was going to press -- the one explaining why I think we should abolish the statute of limitations for sex crimes -- I learned an interesting and astonishing thing.

There is, coincidentally, a move underway in Connecticut to abolish their statute. And the Catholic Church there, in a stunningly ill-timed response, is apoplectic about the idea.

The column last week discussed doing away with the criminal statute of limitations. Connecticut's legislative movement is focused on removing the statute for civil suits stemming from past sexual abuse, thus allowing victims to seek compensation no matter how long ago the sexual attack took place.

The idea was sponsored by State Representative Beth Bye, who has the distinction of having 14 constituents who were childhood victims of a notorious local pedophile. Dr. George Reardon spent most of his career working at the Catholic-run St. Francis Hospital in Hartford, Connecticut. He is suspected of sexually molesting as many as 500 children between the mid-1950s and the early 1990s. He died in 1998.

In 2007, the people who bought Reardon's house renovated the basement, and awful secrets spilled out from the walls. Hidden inside were 100 movie reels and 50,000 slides of child pornography Dr. Reardon had produced. With the faces of his tiny prey staring out from the old film and photographs the victims finally began to come forward to describe their years of abuse.

There are currently 135 separate Reardon-related lawsuits against St. Francis Hospital, which denies it knew anything about the doctor's criminality until after he died. That's interesting, since the first claim against Dr. Reardon stemmed from a case in 1956, and other outstanding complaints of sexual abuse of children followed Reardon to his grave. Mediation has failed to settle any of the 135 cases and they seem destined for trial.

Despite the mountain of photographic evidence, the Catholic Church continues to call the Reardon molestations mere "allegations." Connecticut's Archbishop, Henry Mansell, sees Rep. Bye's effort as a direct attack on the church and is campaigning hard to defeat her bill. Mansell recently instructed each of his priests to take to the pulpit and warn the faithful that their church could be destroyed.

"The passage of this legislation could potentially have a devastating financial effect on the [church] ... and ... other Catholic service organizations," Mansell wrote in a letter to his clergy. "The passage of this law could result in claims that are 50, 60 or 70 years old, which are impossible to adequately defend in court."

Archbishop Mansell apparently doesn't grasp the converse of his statement. A claim of sexual abuse has to be proven in court. If the Archbishop is worried solely about decades-old and unfounded claims, he has nothing to fret about as they'll be impossible to prove. If his actions and comments are rooted in protecting his church, then shame on him, I say.

"Let the young children come to me; do not try to stop them, for the kingdom of God belongs to suchlike ones" Mark 10:13.

If this is how the Church reacts to allegations against a lay member of a Catholic institution, imagine what kind of lengths it would go to in protecting one of its criminal priests.

While Connecticut has the nation's most lenient statute of limitations -- victims have until they are 48 years old to file -- it's still not enough to cover everyone who says Dr. Reardon violated them. In Rep. Bye's district, for example, there is one family with four brothers who were molested by Reardon. Three of them can sue, but one is now too old.

"The same crime, at the same time," Bye told me. "It's just that they have different birthdays. It's a shame." She insists her bill is not an attack on the church. She was raised in the faith and her family has a history of teaching at Catholic schools.

"If this happened at the hands of a little league coach or in a private hospital," she said, "I'd be fighting the same fight. These people deserve justice."

I've hesitated writing about the ever-expanding child sex abuse scandal within the Catholic Church. My paternal grandmother used to take me to Sunday Mass and my daughter attended 12 years of Catholic school, so I've questioned my impartiality. But the counter-attack by the church in Connecticut underscores for me just how uncaring the entire institution appears in responding to a crisis entirely of its own making. For many of the victims worldwide, it's not about the money; it's about getting a sincere apology from a church that facilitated their molestation and seeing some real contrition from their spiritual leaders.

"Somehow," Beth Bye says, "It's become all about the Catholic Church ... They've turned it around to make themselves look like the victim. There are victims here -- and it's not the church."

Somewhere along the way church elders have forgotten that terrible crimes took place, visited upon the most vulnerable of their flock while they looked away. The church needs to rediscover its priorities. It must drop its defensiveness, admit its failures and fully atone, just as it requires their faithful to do.

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