Ten years after revelations of massive sex abuse cover-ups, many victims never get their day in court
"Boy Scouts, the Catholic church, the Citadel, Penn State, the Mormon church - it's all the identical problem," says Hamilton, a professor at Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University and the author of "God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law."
"They'll ignore wrong-doing and bad behavior because it's in the best interest of the institution not to have bad publicity."
But the bad publicity has rained down, inserting "pedophile priests" into the lexicon and turning a storied college sports program into a national disgrace. And the tales keep on coming. This week alone, an official at USA Swimming was banned for life from the sport for covering up for a coach who allegedly began a sexual relationship with a swimmer when the girl was 13-years-old; and the leader of a megachurch in Tulsa, Okla. was hit with charges that she knew about sex abuse allegations against former church employees but kept the matter in-house instead of going to police.
In New York City, the Brooklyn District Attorney was recently criticized for his office's practice of withholding the names of men charged with sexually abusing children in the ultra-orthodox Jewish community - a courtesy that does not typically extend to suspects outside the religious group. And in June, Monsignor William Lynn of the Philadelphia archdiocese became the first U.S. Roman Catholic church official convicted of felony child endangerment for covering up child sex abuse claims. He was sentenced to three-to-six years in prison and is appealing his conviction.
"It's been going on for decades and it seems most pronounced in male-dominated patriarchal hierarchies," explains professor Hamilton, who has written extensively on the subject of religion and the law.
"It's the team notion that sometimes you have to 'take one for the team.' But children are incapable of taking one for the team without permanent pronounced effects."
In the decade since the Boston Globe began reporting on a long history of sexual abuse and cover-ups inside the Catholic Church, law enforcement and advocates for survivors have learned that victims of sexual abuse often take years, even decades, to come forward with their experiences - and many never do at all.
"Unfortunately, it leaves a real scar on the victims," says New York Assemblywoman Margaret Markey, author of the state's Child Victims Act, a pending bill that aims to extend the time period during which victims of sexual abuse can file lawsuits against the institutions that allowed or covered up their abuse.
"Society is paying," says Markey, who points out that many survivors of sexual abuse suffer profound emotional damage, sometimes rendering them unable to hold jobs and sustain marriages.
Markey told Crimesider she became passionate about this subject in 2004 when a constituent in his 30s came to her home and told her he'd been abused by a local priest when he was a pre-teen. Markey says she took the man to see an attorney who said he couldn't do anything because too much time had elapsed since the alleged abuse.
That struck Markey as unjust, and so she wrote New York's Child Victims Act. The act would give sexual abuse victims five more years to come forward with their claims in civil court - from the current cut-off at age 23 to age 28. It would also give all victims of sexual abuse, no matter how old they are, a one-time, one-year window to bring a claim in civil court.
Since being introduced in 2006, the bill has passed the Assembly every year but never been taken up in the Senate. Markey attributes this to a massive lobbying effort by the Catholic Church - just this spring, New York's newly elevated Cardinal Timothy Dolan called the bill "terribly unjust." Both Markey and professor Hamilton say the church is fighting hard to keep similar bills from passing across the country.
And thus far, they have been reasonably successful. Despite the scandal surrounding former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky and the increased publicity it brought to the problem of institutions covering up for sex abuse, secrecy prevails. The Los Angeles archdiocese agreed to a $660 million settlement for more than 500 victims of abuse in 2008, but four years later is still fighting the court's instruction to turn over documents relating to the years-long cover-up.
"It's about protecting their image," says Hamilton. "That's often more important than any amount of money."
But while Markey's bill has languished, some states have passed similar legislation. In late April, Hawaii's governor signed into law a measure allowing a one-time two-year window for victims of sex abuse to bring civil claims. California and Delaware have also enacted similar laws.
On Tuesday, the archdiocese of Philadelphia was hit with eight new lawsuits from nine people alleging their sexual abuse by seven members of the clergy was covered up. In 2006, the state of Pennsylvania extended the statute of limitations for sex abuse victims to file both civil and criminal complaints. According to Marci Hamilton, victims must come forward with civil charges before they are 30-years-old, and have until age 50 to bring criminal charges.
Messages left seeking comment from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops were not returned by press time.
"These victims will not give up," says Markey, who has asked New York's Governor Andrew Cuomo to champion her bill in the upcoming session. "It's going to happen. It's just a matter of when."
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