After all the years I have been doing this work and following these questions, it is still maddening to me that the representatives of the Catholic Church continue to mislead the public about the realities of child abuse, litigation, and child safety. This morning I read the statement from a representative of the Archbishop of New Jersey, that “this bill [proposed loosening of the statute of limitations in New Jersey] is backward-looking, not forward-looking. This bill will not protect a single child.”
Does this man, I wonder, really believe this? Is it possible to believe this? Consider: the Catholic Church, to take just one example of an “institution of trust” with responsibilities for children, is manifestly a safer place than it was, say, 30 years ago. Certainly stilll has a long way to go, but I think it is clear that the Church is a safer place for kids than it was a few decades ago. If that is true, then comes the follow up question: why is that so? Is it because the bishops heard the still small voice of the Spirit urging them to do the right and difficult thing? We wish. But the truth is that it is a safer place, not because the bishops got the Holy Spirit, but because the bishops got sued, over and over again… sued ten thousand times by courageous men and women all over the country who finally stood up for themselves and for future generations of children. THAT’s why kids are safer now. Because of lawsuits; and lawsuits were (and are) only possible in states where the statute of limitations reasonably recognizes that the majority of abuse survivors do not realize their injury until later in life. The psychological literature is loaded with the explanation for this, but it is the reality. And a fair statute of limitations must recognize this reality. Thus the New Jersey debate. But to hear a representative of the Catholic Church say that a statute of limitations bill will not protect a child is simply disappointing, and the statement disingenuous.
I came late to the realization that lawsuits will really help protect children. For a long time, I simply thought of litigation as the messy and uncomfortable search for justice, one victim at a time. But after a decade or so, I started to see the results of all that litigation, and I realized that civil lawsuits really can and do make institutions of trust– not just the defendant institution, but others as well– safer for children. For a fine exposition of the reality that lawsuits (and related publicity) changed the Catholic Church, see the work by my friend Timothy Lytton, Professor of Law at Albany Law School in New York. It is called “Bishop Accountability– How Lawsuits Changed the Catholic Church.” A highly informative read.