Tuesday, April 17, 2007

"Vengeance Time"

The upcoming Commonweal leads with a brow-raiser of a piece from Villanova Law Dean Mark Sargent on the "moral capital" of victim-survivors, and what happens when it's diminished... dotCom says the mag's "already getting somewhat heated letters about it."


In November of last year, the Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware, released the names of twenty former priests about whom the diocese found “credible or substantial complaints of sexual abuse of minors.” Most of the twenty are dead. Edward M. Dudzinski, however, was still living-although he had not served as a priest since the 1980s-and resided in Herndon, Virginia.

When local members of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) discovered Dudzinski’s location, they went door-to-door in his neighborhood distributing a file of documents with the title “Community Notification: Protect your children from a credibly accused serial sex offender,” which they believed established Dudzinski’s identity as a sex offender. Dudzinski, however, has never been convicted of, or even charged with, a sexual-abuse crime.

SNAP has made similar preemptive strikes elsewhere. In January 2007, Rev. Darrell Mitchell left his pastoral duties after SNAP protested his assignment to two parishes in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. While previously serving in Yakima, Washington, Mitchell had been accused of having pictures of nude boys on his computer. No charges, however, were ever filed against him, even after investigations by the FBI, other law enforcement agencies, and the Diocese of Yakima. According to a diocesan spokesman, Mitchell relocated to Missouri because he had been “hounded so much” despite the thoroughness of the investigations and the decision by the FBI and local agencies not to take legal action against him. Unimpressed with that decision by the legal authorities, David Clohessy, SNAP’s national director, said that “Archbishop [Raymond] Burke should have removed [Mitchell], never allowed him here, and still owes Catholics an explanation for his secrecy and recklessness.” Pressure from SNAP was intense enough to induce Fr. Mitchell not only to resign his pastoral duties, but to leave Missouri....

SNAP might claim that its campaigns in Herndon and St. Louis were simply pragmatic measures needed to bring justice to those deprived of it, and to protect potential victims from the ongoing threat of clergy abuse. Presumably, they would argue that the church and its priests are finally getting what they deserve after decades of indifference, deception, and obduracy. Their actions, however, suggest that more is going on. SNAP’s public campaign to expose priests who have merely been accused-or sometimes cleared-of abuse has a vigilante air about it. In their eagerness to effect justice as they know it, SNAP may in fact be disrupting the rule of law. Likewise, the Philadelphia prosecutors’ diatribe against the archdiocese (and the front-page coverage in the Philadelphia Inquirer) served as a kind of public theater in which the prosecutors cathartically worked out their rage at not being able to indict the archdiocese and Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua. The public, emotional, and absolutist character of all these actions expresses not only great anger and frustration, but also the desire to abase and punish. It’s vengeance time.

To be sure, the bishops have brought these theatrics of vengeance on themselves. For an institution famous for its rituals and emphasis on repentance, the church has offered precious few rituals of penitence as a way of acknowledging its fault, recognizing the harm it has done, and seeking forgiveness both from God and those it has wronged. Victims have often said (probably to their lawyers’ alarm) that they would have been content with an opportunity to tell their stories, an acknowledgement of responsibility, exposure of the malefactors, and a genuine apology. The Cultrera brothers’ remarkable documentary Hand of God, recently broadcast on PBS, dramatically shows how a victim first sought only some recognition of the injuries he suffered at the hands of one of the Boston Archdiocese’s worst offenders. He sued for monetary damages only after Bishop John McCormack, one of the guiltiest diocesan officials, flat out lied to him and treated him with peremptory condescension.

No wonder the extraordinary proposed settlement of the Diocese of Spokane bankruptcy requires Bishop William Skylstad not only to publish the names of all credibly accused priests (which has already been done elsewhere), but also to appear at the pulpit in every parish where an abusive priest served, and provide every victim an opportunity to speak out publicly in the parish where he was abused. What’s more, Skylstad must publicly call for eliminating statutes of limitations on sex crimes against children. In the absence of voluntary gestures of penitence, victims and their advocates are extracting public humiliation.

It is not enough to say, however, that bishops, priests, and the church are finally getting what they deserve. The vengeance game is a dangerous one. When the original offense is terrible, we feel empowered to do terrible things in response. Blinded by our righteous rage and convinced of our moral superiority, we may do things we later regret....

It is very hard to criticize the survivors of clergy abuse and their advocates. The survivors were indeed victims, not just of the molesters, but of the bishops and officials who ignored and deceived them, who covered up the problem and enabled further abuse. They have had to struggle bitterly to get any recognition or compensation. But their innocence cannot justify everything that survivors and advocates choose to do.

In particular, it cannot justify some of the settlements that are emerging. The recently proposed settlement of the Diocese of Spokane bankruptcy is an example. The Spokane plaintiffs had the legal leverage provided by a generous statute of limitations that allowed cases to go forward that would have been time-barred elsewhere. They benefited from a highly questionable judicial decision that the diocese “owned” the parishes’ assets, meaning that these could be used to satisfy the diocese’s creditors, including the abuse plaintiffs. The law thus gave the diocese little bargaining power. The diocese also had limited ability to fund a defense. When it declared bankruptcy in 2004, the Diocese of Spokane listed only $11 million in assets against $75 million in liabilities, mostly abuse claims.

It is therefore no wonder that the diocese ended up with a proposed settlement that would provide one of the highest per capita payments of any in the country. But that is not the only disturbing aspect of the proposed arrangement. It presumes payment of $20 million by the diocese’s insurers, who may not actually pay the full amount. In a novel provision, the parishes, or more precisely the parishioners, are expected to raise $10 million, presumably through fundraising and sales of assets. The diocese itself must contribute $18 million, to be raised in part by selling the chancery and the bishop’s residence. In addition, the assets of four Spokane parishes and a retreat center are being used as collateral for $6 million in notes from the diocese. This means that the parishes’ assets are subject to being sold if the diocese defaults on its obligation. Where the balance of the $18 million will come from is not clear. The diocese has only until October 1, 2007, to pay 80 percent of the $45.7 million, with the balance due on October 1, 2010. This is expected from a diocese that is by no means rich. The $11 million in assets it claimed in 2004 has dwindled to just over $8 million because of bankruptcy costs. Even worse, the settlement covers only seventy-five claimants, any of whom could opt out of the settlement and join at least fifteen other potential plaintiffs in separate suits.

The bitterest irony of this punishing settlement, however, is that the victims are likely to receive only about half the total recovery to divide among themselves. Some will cover litigation costs. The rest will go to their lawyers.