Earlier this month, Pope Francis translated his much-discussed “breath of fresh” air into action when it comes to cracking down on the sexual abuse crisis that has crippled the church in recent years. The pope changed church law so that bishops who may be looking the other way when it comes to predatory priests can more easily be removed.
As The Wall Street Journal noted, “The new document, entitled ‘Like a Living Mother,’ lays out a procedure for Vatican offices to initiate investigations of bishops suspected of negligence. While other sorts of negligence must be deemed ‘very grave’ by the Vatican to trigger removal, negligence of abuse cases need only meet the standard of ‘grave.’“
This does sound a little technical. Still, at least it can be counted as action taken towards attempting to solve a problem that has ruined so many lives.
Closer to home, however, a new front has been opened over fallout from the sex abuse scandals. Thus far, the response by American church authorities has not been encouraging.
For months, the New York Daily News has been railing against lawmakers in Albany who refused to pass reforms that would give sex abuse victims more time to identify and help prosecute individuals and institutions that failed to protect them. Currently, New York and other states have statutes of limitations which make it difficult for victims to get justice as the years go on.
“In the end, state lawmakers protected the predators,” the News reported this weekend.
“The state Legislature ended the 2016 legislative session about 5 a.m. Saturday without acting on legislation to help survivors of child sex abuse. An all-night session to wrap up the legislative year did not lead to a last-minute miracle that victims and advocates were hoping for.”
This left advocates for reform, such as Irish American state lawmaker Margaret Markey, disappointed. Markey had sponsored a bill that would have extended the statute of limitations, and had even come out and said one top Catholic official attempted to bribe her, in order to get her to withdraw support for reforms.
The New York Archdiocese, and other Catholic institutions across the country, oppose extending statutes of limitations for sex abuse victims. They fear their parishes can be bankrupt by such charges, some of which may be hazy give the many years that may have passed between an alleged abuse and the filing of actual charges.
There are understandable concerns here. But the staunchness of opposition from Catholic officials is awfully tone-deaf. It is a reminder of the arrogance of the early years of the sex abuse scandals -- captured so alarmingly in the Oscar-winning film Spotlight -- when Catholic power brokers assumed the public would always end up on their side.
But that tide appears to have turned long ago.
Equally disturbing events are unfolding in the Philadelphia area.
A similar bill dealing with extending the statute of limitations for sex abuse victims is up for debate in Pennsylvania. In recent weeks, Catholic lawmakers have said they have been called out from the pulpit or in church bulletins. They have been targeted for their support for extending the measure, and say that priests are urging parishioners to remember this at election time.
An interesting wrinkle here is that, in the past, Catholic Democrats have been warned they may be denied sacraments -- and political support from parishioners -- because of their support for abortion. In this case, however, Republicans, such as Irish American state rep John Rafferty, Jr., are facing the church’s wrath.
He told Philly.com he “attended Mass over the weekend and listened as the congregation was encouraged to contact its senators” regarding the statute of limitations bill.
Rafferty, a Republican nominee for state attorney general, said, "I was disappointed and discouraged by the church's message."
Church officials have come a long way since the arrogance of a decade ago. Nevertheless, they will eventually have to decide if they are part of the problem or part of the solution.