Monday, September 23, 2019

Crisis Digest

Continuing with our Fall Cycle rollout, while the thread of integrating local cultures into ecclesial life takes center stage over the weeks ahead, for much of the Catholic world, the enduring cloud of abuse crises ever looms at close range – and with little prompting, could return to dominate the scene at any time.

Though that's always been true over the last two decades, it's far more the case these days. For starters, in contrast to the US church's last full-on immersion in 2002, 15 months into "Crisis 2.0," the cycle of scandal currently at hand has already remained a top-line story for a longer period than the national eruption born from Boston. This endurance owes itself to three things:
  • first, the drastic shift of media and technology over the intervening years which has enabled an easier spread of news (and, along the way, birthed specialist outlets like the one you're reading); 
  • second, between the December 2002 resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law and the run-up to the war in Iraq, by early 2003 – a year after the first Globe stories incited the wider storm – the broader focus essentially moved on to other stories, perceiving that the scandal had been sufficiently "addressed";
  • and perhaps most critically, this round's extraordinary four-fold main pieces – the watershed removal, then dismissal, of a once-cardinal on abuse counts and the conviction and jailing of another overseas; followed by the scorching accusations from first-of-its-kind civil inquest in the States, which then birthed a flood of other government probes, all capped by an unprecedented global conference on abuse led by the Pope (and his enactment of a fresh set of worldwide accountability norms) – have combined to make for a steady stream of uncharted developments at the church's topmost level.
In that light, even as the bulk of recent attention has hewed toward the internal front – that is, the progress of canonical investigations into bishops by the Holy See (or lack thereof) in the wake of Vos estis lux mundi – in reality, the bulk of impending movement on the scandal front instead lies outside the church's walls: in the courts and with law enforcement, which responded in staggering fashion to last year's grand jury report that catalogued a harrowing trail of abuse and cover-up in six of Pennsylvania's eight dioceses across seven decades.

As of this writing, at least 17 states and the District of Columbia have launched some sort of investigation or review of all their dioceses in the wake of the Pennsylvania report. Together with a handful of efforts by city or county prosecutors, the locales in process include seven of the ten largest states and, just as notably, eight of the nation's ten largest (arch)dioceses. That said, it's important to keep in mind that the structures and abilities of the respective efforts differ according to the laws of the respective state, so no two of them are the same in terms of their respective structure or ability to act.

Of the entire group, only one probe has concluded – a yearlong review in Missouri, whose attorney general issued a 150-page report earlier this month that found 186 cases of abuse in the state's four dioceses after poring through a half-century of personnel files, yet was only able to refer 12 cases to local prosecutors due to either the death of the alleged perpetrator or a lapse of the statute of limitations.

On a separate front, as the Mizzou report was marked by several curious recommendations that lie beyond the pay-grade of any bishop, belonging solely to canon law and Rome as its legislator – among other examples, the AG called for expedited laicization and enhanced oversight of religious orders by the dioceses – it stands to reason that at least some of the suggestions will be brought to the Holy See by the statewide province on its coming ad limina visit. With St Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson's age-induced succession already pending before the Pope, the "Show Me" bench is due at the Vatican just after the New Year for its "quinquennial" report to Francis and the Curia. As the wider context goes, meanwhile, in his June keynote to the US and Canada's annual Catholic Media Conference in St Petersburg, Msgr John Kennedy – the Irish-born desk chief of the disciplinary section of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (that is, the global church's global clearinghouse of all abuse allegations) – reported that, in a striking first, his staff already outnumbers that of the doctrinal section of the "Holy Office" (i.e. the division that supervises theologians for orthodoxy) given the ongoing crush of cases from around the world.

Back to the domestic scene, just one closed investigation means another 17 have yet to conclude with a summary of findings, filing of charges, or both – and as the lion's share of the reviews were opened over the three months following the Pennsylvania release in August 2018, many will be reaching the time-limit of a year through the coming weeks.

At least so far, the state inquests have managed no more than a dozen arrests of priests on relatively recent abuse counts – in other words, indictments on cover-ups have proven elusive – but as the landmark Pennsylvania report made clear, the power of the reckoning isn't necessarily in racking up perp-walks, but in presenting a narrative able to galvanize public opinion and enrage the faithful both at home and beyond, who've often sensed that the civil processes have yielded genuine disclosure and transparency for the first time. (At the report's anniversary last month, one home-province op said his diocese remained "a shambles" – and that's far from an isolated assessment within the state.)

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Of course, the 17 remaining probes are far from the only wild cards afoot – these weeks likewise mark a year since the Federal government subpoenaed the records of Pennsylvania's dioceses and eparchies for a Philadelphia-based probe that quickly saw the entire American hierarchy warned to hold its files for a potential expansion of the investigation. (Located across the street from Independence Hall, the probe's headquarters – the US Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania – is seen at right.)

Armed with unlimited time and resources to build its case, the Department of Justice process yielded its first arrest earlier this month, as an already-laicized Philadelphia cleric was charged with lying to investigators during an interview last spring. And here, the unique scope of a Federal inquest bears recalling: beyond its lack of time-limits and sweeping ability to cross state lines, circumvent statutes of limitations and levy charges on crimes beyond the remit of state law, the DOJ is far more capable (and arguably willing) to detect and prosecute "process crimes" like false statements or obstruction of justice in the pursuit of its investigation, which can both eclipse decades-old allegations of abuse or child endangerment, not to mention carrying the prospect of significant penalties on their own, irrespective of any other alleged misconduct. (Along these lines, it's worth noting that William Brennan – the dismissed cleric arrested by the FBI – had previously been charged on state-level abuse counts, but the case was unable to proceed due to the death of his alleged victim.)

Beyond the criminal aspect of the legal scene, what's arguably an equally perilous thread involves the ongoing tide of civil litigation spurred by the scandals' resurgence. Just five weeks into a yearlong "window" suspending the civil statute of limitations on abuse lawsuits across New York State, one of the province's eight dioceses – the 330,000-member Rochester fold – became the 20th US see to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy under the weight of a docket that officials there expect could result in over 150 cases.

According to Whispers ops, at least two other New York dioceses are likewise said to be on the verge of bankruptcy declarations, with potentially more to follow as the year wends on. Notably, while the statewide "window" encompasses lawsuits over alleged abuse in any institution, the church (whether dioceses or religious orders) has been the defendant in the overwhelming majority of the roughly 500 cases filed over the last month.

In related developments, the flood of litigation is set to dominate news in the nation's largest media market over the coming months as New Jersey – most of it covered by New York City outlets – sees its own two-year "window" take effect in November. Meanwhile, out West, the nation's largest state is bracing for a second exemption of the civil statute; after California's first "window" in 2004 yielded well over $1 billion in settlements – topped by the all-time record $660 million paid out in 2007 by the archdiocese of Los Angeles – an encore bill before the legislature in Sacramento (which would suspend the statute for three years) has been stalled less by the opposition of the hierarchy than that of public institutions, which were not included in the last round. As attempts to pass a new "window" were halted in the assembly's last session by then-Gov. Jerry Brown's veto, the onetime Jesuit scholastic has since been succeeded by the Democrat Gavin Newsom, who's perceived as considerably less reluctant to sign the measure should it reach his desk.

(SVILUPPO: Underscoring the rapid shifts at hand, the re-upped California "window" bill passed both houses of the legislature at mid-month and currently awaits Newsom's signature. Should the governor sign it, a three-year halt of the civil statute's time-limit for lawsuits would begin on January 1st. Relatedly, last week likewise brought the formal launch of a church-backed mediation program by the state's southern province – led by Los Angeles' fold of 5 million, by far the largest of US Catholicism's 34 metropolitan jurisdictions – in an effort to settle abuse claims without litigation, regardless of when they are alleged to have occurred. Already underway in several other provinces facing the specter or reality of "window" laws, in the strategy's initial launchpad, the "independent reconciliation and compensation" plans in New York State have already seen its dioceses pay out in excess of $250 million to survivors, who agree to forego lawsuits as a result.)

All told, this is merely a cursory glimpse at what could erupt at any given point, and odds are there are pieces yet unknown still to enter the picture. Nonetheless, the combined toll has made for a brutal weight in the trenches, and even as not a few folks have faltered under the strain of it, it remains the case that this storyline won't be going anywhere anytime soon – indeed, as one of the bench's younger members told Whispers in anguish, handling the fallout "is going to last the rest of my time as a bishop."

Just between this piece and the aforementioned cultural thread, the workload of the cycle ahead is daunting enough... and to think, we haven't even made it to the Appointments Desk yet.

For now, much as it'll soon be crunch time on news, the bills that make this work possible are making for the first mountain to get past.... Ergo, with $850 in the shop's usual tech-and-utilities costs due before this week is out, as ever, keeping the lights on here isn’t this scribe’s call, but yours: