Accountability, justice, reform — these are what the public rightfully counts on when hit by revelations of rampant child sexual abuse and cover-ups like that reported by a Pennsylvania grand jury in the case of the Catholic Church.
As we cringe at this latest chapter of corruption by a (once) trusted religious institution — 300 sexual-predator priests, more than 1,000 victims, and a pattern of Catholic authorities concealing the crimes to protect the priests and institution — concerned citizens hope and expect to see such recompense now
In vain. Unless some Pennsylvania legislators are successful in their resurgent efforts to lift the statute of limitations, most of the crimes are deemed too far in the past for prosecution and victims’ lawsuits.
If ever it was time for Pennsylvania to join other states that have loosened or abolished such statutes in cases of child sexual abuse, now is that moment. But more, the Pennsylvania story prompts an overdue grappling with the meaning of institutions’ and public figures’ past sins and how to reckon with them in the present.
Past sins still impact the present
It’s revealing to hear the pushback against the pending legislation in Pennsylvania, which would open a retroactive window to lawsuits by victims whose abuse has passed its legal expiration date. The Catholic Church’s defenders emphasize how long it’s been since the corruption occurred, as if to suggest that the mere passage of time has made it more acceptable.
An April 2017 statement by the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference points out that the abuse and cover-ups happened “years ago.” Allowing litigation now, the conference says, would be “unfair to individual Catholics today whose parishes and schools would be the targets of decades-old lawsuits.”
Does this logic sound familiar? Probably so, because it’s similar to the reasoning applied to analogous situations, from proposed slavery reparations for African Americans to the present-day salience of the president’s alleged adulterous affairs with a porn actress and former Playboy bunny more than a decade ago.
Listen to President Trump’s leading evangelical defenders justify his sexual misconduct. “That was a long time ago,” Franklin Graham said on CNN when coverage of the Stormy Daniels story was spiking last winter. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, has joined Graham in asserting that Trump is a changed man whose past misdeeds no longer matter.
But is his past truly so far in the past? Not in light of his continued refusal to publicly account for his misbehavior. Remember that Trump’s fixer, Michael Cohen, paid off Stormy Daniels shortly before the 2016 election to keep her from revealing their affair at a sensitive time. His guilty plea on Tuesday is a prime example of how deeds from supposedly long ago continue to dog wrongdoers in the present unless they are properly dealt with.
Same with reparations, whose proponents argue that racial oppression will continue to fester until justice is done for a race of people subjected to centuries of slavery and Jim Crow. Same with the Catholic Church, which for more than 15 years now has staggered under revelation after revelation of its priests’ sexual predations and the higherups’ failure to address them.
Why has this become a scandal seemingly without end? Partly because the Catholic Church has yet to come all the way clean. Alongside earnest apologies and significant progress in preventing clergy child abuse have come instances of foot-dragging, as well as a tendency to minimize the magnitude of the past abuses and bishops' failure to respond responsibly.
In Pennsylvania, why did it take a grand jury investigation to get to the bottom of the abuse and cover-up and let the public know? Worse yet, why did two of the six dioceses under investigation attempt to block the grand jury’s work?
It's time for true repentance from the church
The Catholic Church is a religious institution that ought to be the most committed of all to the Christian practice of repentance. Why wouldn’t it “get out front” of this disaster and lead the process of discovering, disclosing, accounting for and correcting its sins?
When you ‘fess up only after the truth has been dragged out of you, you don’t inspire much confidence. Which is why few realistic people would bet that Pennsylvania is where this story ends.
As for statutes of limitations, of course it’s more difficult to have trials over deeds of long ago. Perpetrators die, witnesses' memories fade, the public gradually forgets — although certainly not child-abuse victims, who remain plagued by their abuse for the rest of their lives, right up to the point of suicide in the most severe instances. Even if the age of the cases makes them more difficult to try, it is worth the effort. Justice demands that survivors get their day in court.
Time does not heal all wounds, not by itself. William Faulkner was right when he famously wrote that “the past is never dead, it's not even past."
As the Catholic abuse scandal demonstrates, the past remains virulently alive in the present, clinging to people and organizations in the most damaging ways, until accounts are squared and justice is done.