Yesterday, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Statewide Investigating Grand Jury released a comprehensive report detailing the Catholic Church’s systematic and widespread cover-up of more than 300 Catholic clergy’s sexual abuse of thousands of children.
The report exposes a shameful cover-up by the late Baltimore Cardinal William H. Keeler, which The Baltimore Sun detailed in an article published last night. According to the report, Keeler reassigned a pedophile priest from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to Baltimore, Maryland where he continued to abuse children.
Unfortunately, the Catholic Church and its pedophile priests have limited liability in Maryland for abused children’s claims against them, as Maryland’s statute of limitations for child sex abuse is among the country’s worst.
Despite the impression among Marylanders who watched The Keepers, a documentary on Netflix, the truth is Maryland lawmakers and the Catholic Church crafted an extension to Maryland’s statute of limitations to help the Church avoid any liability for past crimes and to severely limit the Church’s liability going forward.
As I recently wrote in Sanford Heisler Sharp's “Working for Justice,” the extension to Maryland’s statute of limitations does not apply to victims whose abuse occurred before October 1, 2010. Moreover, the legal hurdles in the new law essentially limit any clergy abuse victim from bringing a claim seven years after their 18th birthday. Because many sexually abused children disclose their sexual abuse after their 25th birthday (and oftentimes in their 30s or 40s), Maryland’s statute of limitations for these victims’ claims currently weigh the protection of the Catholic Church and its pedophile priests over the protection of children and adults abused as children.
The Catholic Church’s power in Maryland is virtually unparalleled. Maryland has hosted one of the few worldwide centers—Saint Luke Institute—where pedophile priests spent days or weeks “healing” before being reassigned to parishes, who were not informed of their history of abuse. To date, the Church has resisted every attempt made by victims to have records regarding pedophile priests turned over from Saint Luke Institute. The Church has also refused to report to the authorities disclosures of child sex abuse at Saint Luke Institute, as required by Maryland law, arguing that the disclosures are protected by the confessor privilege.
Maryland’s Archdiocese attempts to paint itself as charitable by offering victims whose claims are barred a “confidential” mediation process whereby victims are offered a small amount of money in exchange for agreeing to drop their claim(s) and to not seek to compel the Catholic Church to provide any records or other information about their abuse or its cover-up.
After reviewing thousands of pages of documents, including documents regarding abuse in Maryland, the Pennsylvania Statewide Investigating Grand Jury made three recommendations that Maryland lawmakers should follow if they truly want to protect children and bring justice to survivors.
First, Maryland should enact a two-year civil window in which any victim of childhood sexual abuse would be permitted to bring a lawsuit against the Catholic Church or other institution that enabled, facilitated, and/or covered up the abuse;
Second, Maryland should end secret civil settlements like the ones routinely offered by Maryland’s Archdiocese; and,
Finally, Maryland should impose penalties for failing to report sexual abuse.
As a practicing Catholic, I am truly ashamed of how the leadership and advisors of the Catholic Church have chosen, at every turn, to protect themselves at the expense of innocent children. Throughout the day, I have listened as Church officials like Archbishop William E. Lori have uttered hollow “apologies” undoubtedly wordsmithed by attorneys and crisis managers. These officials need to understand, in the words of Fr. Thomas Doyle, that “the Church belongs to the innocent children who fill the pews” and not to the bureaucrats who guard the coffers above all. Like Father Doyle, I pray the Church’s leaders someday find the moral courage to act accordingly.