The Philadelphia Inquirer
October 23, 2009
The best way for Wilmington’s Roman Catholic Bishop W. Francis Malooly to demonstrate his stated concern for “all victims of sexual abuse by priests of our diocese” would be to give those victims their day in court.
Instead, Malooly’s eleventh-hour decision Sunday to file for bankruptcy protection effectively halted the first of eight clergy sex-abuse trials set to start the next day. That will have the net effect to further delay or perhaps thwart many victims’ long quest for justice.
The bishop wrote to the diocese’s 230,000 faithful that the “painful decision” to file for bankruptcy was intended to ensure that funds are available so that all of the victims get a fair settlement.
In other words, the bishop claims he doesn’t want one big verdict to deplete the church coffers and leave nothing for the other victims.
Malooly denied that church leaders were trying “to dodge responsibility for past criminal misconduct by clergy – or for mistakes made by Diocesan authorities.”
If true, it’s a welcome change from a church hierarchy that for decades has shielded predator priests by moving them from parish to parish. But an idiom recited by the many fine nuns in parish schools comes to mind: Actions speak louder than words.
Given the real-world impact of the bankruptcy claim, there’s no way around the perception that Delaware church officials have ducked for cover – in what one attorney for an abuse-case plaintiff called “scandal prevention.”
Indeed, the first trial in a civil damages lawsuit brought by a former altar boy, John M. Vai, 57, would have revealed chilling testimony about violent sex acts by a priest from 1966 to 1970, according to Vai’s attorneys.
Now, those embarrassing allegations and many others won’t be aired in open court for months and months, if at all. Nor will the public hear any details of church leaders’ efforts to cover for predator priests.
As time goes on, it becomes increasingly difficult to mount legal claims like these because they rely heavily on victims’ testimony about long-ago abuse. So the danger is that justice delayed will mean justice denied.
The diocese’s move represents a stunning rebuke to Delaware state lawmakers, who, in 2007, voted to clear the air on the state’s clergy sex-abuse scandal.
Dover lawmakers opened a two-year window permitting civil suits by adult victims of sex abuse, even though the alleged assaults occurred years ago and the statute of limitations had lapsed.
Patterned after a California law, the measure put the First State in the forefront to give abuse victims their day in court. It gave hope to victims’ advocates in Pennsylvania, who have been stymied in their push for similar legislation in Harrisburg. That effort is opposed by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the state Catholic Conference, and others.
In Philadelphia alone, hundreds of abuse victims have been awaiting justice since a scathing grand jury report in 2005. The report concluded that 63 archdiocesan priests had sexually abused children and that top church leaders helped cover for some.
But church officials across the nation continue to fight statute moratoriums with specious claims that victims’ lawsuits will lead to parish closings, and several dioceses have resorted to the dubious bankruptcy claim.
If nothing else, the Delaware bankruptcy filing appears premature. After all, diocesan officials won’t even know the full scope of their financial liability until the abuse cases go to trial.
Legal experts said the diocese – which is a separate entity from Wilmington parishes and church schools – could have awaited the outcome of the trials before claiming it is broke.
Had Wilmington church officials allowed the civil cases to go forward, they would have avoided the perception that the cover-up continues.