Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Missouri abuse victims challenge court, church & lawmakers

Missouri abuse victims challenge court, church & lawmakers

We are members of a support group called SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests ( We’re here today because we’re upset with Missouri Catholic officials and with Missouri’s Supreme Court.

Over the past few years, Missouri’s highest court has repeatedly ruled in favor of the accused and against the accusers in child sex cases. The trouble with this is simple – because sex offenders are shrewd and cunning and likely to re-offend, we need to do everything possible to enable child sex abuse victims to come forward, get help, expose predators, and protect kids. Repeatedly ruling on the side of pedophiles and against their victims sends a depressing and chilling message to the very crime victims who most need an encouraging and welcoming message.

We’re not lawyers. We aren’t faulting court’s legal judgment. We are, however, pointing out the likely eventual outcome of these court rulings: fewer child predators will be exposed and jailed, and more children will be abused. That, of course, should trouble all Missourians. We hope it troubles the court.

Of course, the court couldn’t have made some of these hurtful rulings if not for Missouri Catholic officials, who have repeatedly sought to protect themselves and their reputations by exploiting every legal technicality and loophole and maneuver their high-priced defense lawyers can devise. The church hierarchy can’t have it both ways. They can’t claim to be compassionate shepherds, yet act in court toward deeply wounded victims like cold-hearted CEOs.

If Catholic officials must fight against clergy sex abuse victims, let them fight on the merits, not the technicalities.

We’re most upset about the most recent decision, which essentially cements Missouri’s unusual and unsafe posture as one of just two states that, according to the American Bar Association Journal, Wisconsin and Missouri are the only states that “have shielded religious organizations from (some child sex abuse) lawsuits” by giving “First Amendment free-exercise-clause protections to internal decision-making in dealing with clergy accused of sexual abuse.”

In other words, Missouri’s Supreme Court is saying that abuse in a religious setting is “special.” They’re essentially saying that officials who hire, train, supervise and shield predators can often be sued in a secular setting but rarely in a religious setting. Thus, kids in private or public schools have more legal rights than kids in parochial schools.

We believe there’s a reason that only two states have reached this legal conclusion: it’s wrong and it’s dangerous.

Taking legal action against a reckless public school principal and a reckless parochial school principal (or a public school superintendent and a bishop) is not based on “belief” but on “behavior.” The First Amendment, most judges have held, protects religious belief, not criminal conduct. It is designed to protect believers, not wrongdoers.

We hope the Missouri Supreme Court, at its earliest opportunity, will re-think this unfair and unwise double standard.

We know it’s safe, tempting and easy for legislators to “get tough” with child molesters and pass ever-more-draconian laws restricting their activities and movements. We believe that, in some cases, lawmakers have “over-reached,” enacting statutes that are, in fact, unconstitutional.

At the same time, however, we also believe that Missouri’s judiciary has some flexibility and leeway and judgment, and should, wherever possible, err on the side of safeguarding vulnerable kids over child predators.

When the court overturns a child sex abuse law or limits the legal options of child sex abuse victims, remedies should at least be sought. It’s not enough for lawmakers to wring their hands and deplore any or all of these decisions and move on. They should, we believe, use their powers to go back to the drawing board and try to more carefully craft new laws that both meet the legal requirements of a democratic society that values balance and the safety requirements of a civilized society that values children.

So today, we have four messages or pleas:

1. We urge lawmakers to try next session to re-do some of the laws overturned by the high court.

2. We urge Missouri’s highest court to think long and hard before eroding legal rights for victims or increasing legal rights for offenders,

3. We urge church officials to reconsider their “legal hardball” approach, and urge them to act in court like they speak in public – with sensitivity towards victims and concern for children, and not seek to take advantage of every possible legal move they can to avoid responsibility and protect predators, and

4. We urge anyone who saw, suspected or suffered child sex crimes to keep coming forward, despite these recent legal setbacks.

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