Two verdicts, a single message


On Fri­day, June 22, 2012, two sys­tems col­lided: the good old-fash­ioned Amer­ic­an justice sys­tem and the till-now un­ac­count­able Ro­man Cath­ol­ic dio­ces­an sys­tem of mis­hand­ling child sex ab­use by priests. It was the first time that a mem­ber of the Cath­ol­ic hier­archy has been held re­spons­ible by the crim­in­al justice sys­tem for the ab­use of chil­dren. The sys­tem spans the globe, and the pat­tern of the cov­er-up is per­sist­ent across dio­ceses. So this lone con­vic­tion mat­ters in all states and even all coun­tries with west­ern-style justice.

The North­east was at the epi­cen­ter of the his­tor­ic tri­al of Ms­gr. Wil­li­am Lynn of the Phil­adelphia Arch­diocese. De­frocked priest Ed­ward Avery pleaded guilty to sexu­al as­sault of a child and con­spir­acy to en­danger chil­dren im­me­di­ately be­fore the tri­al; Lynn was con­victed of en­dan­ger­ing the wel­fare of a child in the con­text of Avery’s crimes.  The Arch­diocese knew that Avery had ab­used boys be­fore, but still placed him at Naz­areth Hos­pit­al as a chap­lain, which meant he lived at the rect­ory at St. Jerome’s par­ish. There, he had ac­cess to the vic­tim who test­i­fied against Lynn at tri­al.

On the same date, Penn State foot­ball de­fens­ive coach Jerry San­dusky was con­victed of 45 out of 48 crim­in­al charges for sexu­ally ab­us­ing boys, which he snared through his char­ity Second Mile, and whom he se­duced with the won­ders of the Penn State foot­ball uni­verse. These two con­vic­tions on the very same date turned a single-note mes­sage in­to a chor­us: If you want to pro­tect chil­dren, wake up!

All of the adults in these scen­ari­os bear some re­spons­ib­il­ity for the dev­ast­a­tion of these chil­dren’s lives. The sexu­al pred­at­ors de­serve blame, to be sure, but they can­not op­er­ate to reach so many chil­dren without oth­er adults as­sist­ing them.  It is sheer na­iv­et&ea­cute; or per­sist­ent self-de­lu­sion to try to lay the blame for these sys­tems of ab­use solely or even primar­ily at the feet of the com­puls­ive pe­do­philes.

Their em­ploy­ers are re­spons­ible for the chil­dren in their re­spect­ive uni­verses. In both the Penn State and the Phil­adelphia Arch­diocese con­texts, chil­dren are ex­pressly in­vited. In the Arch­diocese, they at­tend pa­ro­chi­al schools like St. Jerome’s, par­ti­cip­ate in CYO, serve as al­tar serv­ers, and at­tend Mass. At Penn State, they at­ten­ded sum­mer foot­ball camps and worked out and showered in Penn State fa­cil­it­ies. 

The Phil­adelphia Arch­diocese cre­ated the danger for chil­dren by plunk­ing known pred­at­or Avery smack dab in the middle of one of its aren­as where chil­dren were ex­pressly in­vited. Penn State cre­ated the danger by giv­ing San­dusky free rein even after he had re­tired, fol­low­ing the 1998 in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to charges of sexu­al ab­use, and by not re­port­ing oth­er re­ports of ab­use to the au­thor­it­ies. Both in­sti­tu­tions made choices that en­dangered chil­dren.

The par­ents are re­spons­ible for vi­gil­ance with their chil­dren, but un­til re­cently few knew that pat­terns of ab­use ex­is­ted, that chil­dren of­ten don’t tell, and that the men in power they id­ol­ized could sub­jug­ate the wel­fare of chil­dren to the in­sti­tu­tion’s repu­ta­tion.  Many now suf­fer the hell of un­der­stand­ing what was done to their chil­dren. All par­ents in the fu­ture must un­der­stand that they have a re­spons­ib­il­ity of hy­per vi­gil­ance for their chil­dren, be­cause pe­do­philes are mas­ters of ma­nip­u­la­tion and work tire­lessly to ob­tain par­ents’ trust so that they can get their chil­dren alone to ab­use. 

One im­port­ant les­son all par­ents must learn from these ver­dicts is that just be­cause an in­sti­tu­tion in­vites chil­dren does not mean that in­sti­tu­tion is tak­ing full re­spons­ib­il­ity for their pro­tec­tion. Uni­versit­ies every­where host sum­mer sports camps for chil­dren, but have ques­tion­able or no policies for their pro­tec­tion. Penn State is not alone in this scan­dal. The Cit­adel is fa­cing sim­il­ar sum­mer camp is­sues.

The oth­er adults who bear re­spons­ib­il­ity are our elec­ted rep­res­ent­at­ives. The Phil­adelphia Dis­trict At­tor­ney’s Of­fice stepped up first when D.A. Lynne Ab­ra­ham con­vened the first grand jury to in­vest­ig­ate the Arch­diocese’s po­lices a dec­ade ago. Seth Wil­li­ams has kept the fo­cus on child safety and wel­fare with the Lynn tri­al.

Pennsylvania’s le­gis­lat­ors are also ul­ti­mately re­spons­ible for the wel­fare of chil­dren be­cause they pass the laws that cre­ate the sys­tem of justice. They know full well that the ex­ist­ing stat­utes of lim­it­a­tions for child sex ab­use — un­til re­cently — shut out the vast ma­jor­ity of vic­tims. In the Lynn tri­al, only two vic­tims were with­in the stat­ute.  Evid­ence re­gard­ing 22 oth­ers, whose claims fell out­side the stat­ute, was per­mit­ted, be­cause it was rel­ev­ant to the con­spir­acy charge, but crim­in­al charges can­not be filed in any of those 22 cases. Right now, a vic­tim has un­til age 50 to file crim­in­al charges, and un­til age 30 for a civil claim.

What is needed, though, is a win­dow that would per­mit the thou­sands, likely mil­lions, of ex­pired civil claims in Pennsylvania to find their way in­to court.  Ex­pired crim­in­al charges can­not be re­vived un­der the fed­er­al Con­sti­tu­tion, but ex­pired civil claims can be re­vived and the only way we can catch up on the in­justices the sys­tem vis­ited on vic­tims is through a win­dow. The Cath­ol­ic Con­fer­ence, the lob­by­ist for Pennsylvania’s bish­ops, is ex­pend­ing pa­rish­ion­ers’ dona­tions on fight­ing child sex ab­use vic­tims in Har­ris­burg.  Rep. Ron Marsico tried to block all stat­ute of lim­it­a­tion re­form for their be­ne­fit, but felt the heat enough to re­port out of his House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee a bill that would elim­in­ate the crim­in­al stat­ute of lim­it­a­tions, and ex­tend the civil stat­ute to age 50. Those are great de­vel­op­ments, but they leave the vast ma­jor­ity of ex­ist­ing vic­tims in Pennsylvania with no leg­al re­course. 

As we learned last Fri­day, the justice sys­tem is the best, and of­ten the only, route to child pro­tec­tion. 

Marci Hamilton is a res­id­ent of Bucks County; a law pro­fess­or at Car­dozo School of Law; and a law­yer for vic­tims of child sex ab­use. 

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