In an article appearing in the latest issue of the New Yorker, Paul Elie takes a look at how victims of the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal are obtaining justice. Is it enough that a priest is sent to prison? How much money is fair compensation? What happens if the abuse occurred so long ago that the statute of limitations has long passed?
He specifically looks at the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program (IRCP), independent of the Church, that has been tasked to dole out money to victims on behalf of various dioceses. Victims accept any money with the understanding that they will not be able to sue the Church in the future, even if the laws change (and, say, the statute of limitations is repealed).
Before going into the specifics, though, Elie talks about just how serious this scandal has become for Catholics.
Like many Catholics, I wonder whether this story will ever be over and whether things will ever be set right. Often called a crisis, the problem is more enduring and more comprehensive than that. Social scientists report that the gravest period of priestly sexual abuse was the sixties and seventies, and the problem has been in public view for the past three and a half decades. For most American Catholics, then, the fact of sexual abuse by priests and its coverup by bishops has long been an everyday reality. Priestly sexual abuse has directly harmed thousands of Catholics, spoiling their sense of sexuality, of intimacy, of trust, of faith. Indirectly, the pattern of abuse and coverup has made Catholics leery of priests and disdainful of the idea that the bishops are our “shepherds.” It has muddled questions about Church doctrine concerning sexual orientation, the nature of the priesthood, and the role of women; it has hastened the decline of Catholic schooling and the shuttering of churches…
Sounds about right. Church leaders don’t deserve automatic respect or unearned authority. Their doctrine should be questioned. Their critics shouldn’t be giving any money to those institutions, whether it’s Catholic school tuition or tithes.
When it comes to compensating victims, there’s also the difficult task of trying to verify their stories. Says Elie, “Typically, the person who applies for compensation reports that he was sexually abused decades ago, without witnesses, by a priest who is dead, and offers corroborating material that wouldn’t stand up in court.”
All of this has made life especially difficult for people who grew up in the Church and continue to love it, giant warts and all, but who are now second-guessing their allegiances.
I often ask myself: How should I judge such men — as sinners, as products of a Catholic sexual culture, as statistical outliers, as frail human beings like the rest of us? I repeat the mantra that committed Catholics have repeated for a third of a century: “Remember the good ones,” the priests we know who strive to live holy lives. How to sort the good ones from the bad ones — the saved from the damned — is a question that religions exist to answer. And yet my personal history suggests that there’s no clear way to know who the good ones are.
It’s a fascinating story that doesn’t necessarily offer much closure. But it does show how victims are finally being taken seriously after decades of the Church trying to keep them quiet.
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