New York’s Roman Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre — the largest diocese in the U.S. — has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, seeking relief from a torrent of lawsuits filed after the state suspended the statute of limitations for suing over sexual abuse by priests.
A Look at Look-Back Laws
The Child Victims Act (known colloquially as a look-back law) of 2019 suspended the statute of limitations on child sex abuse claims in New York state for a one-year “look-back window,” allowing victims of any age a one-year period to file civil actions, regardless of when the abuse occurred. After the “window” closes, victims will have until the age of 55 to file lawsuits regarding their abuse.
Since becoming law, the Child Victims Act has led to a wave of civil lawsuits in New York, many of which involve alleged clergy abuse that occurred in the 1960s through the 1980s. Passage of the law could ultimately result in at least $4 billion in additional payouts, according to some estimates. Other states have also changed, or are changing, their laws regarding the statute of limitations for sexual abuse claims.
Thousands More Step Forward
The number of allegations of Catholic clergy sex abuse of minors more than quadrupled in 2019 compared to the average in the previous five years. A report issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in June 2020 revealed that between July 2018 and June 2019, there were 4,434 allegations of clergy sex abuse against minors.
The Soul-Crushing Harm Caused by Sexual Abuse
Depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other psychological disorders affect child victims of sexual abuse, and the impact can last throughout their lifetimes. It can make it difficult, if not impossible, for survivors to form relationships, experience happiness, or find and keep jobs. Many victims get the help they need but many others live the rest of their days in pain, seeking relief through substance abuse or suicide.
Church Has Own Ideas on ‘Just Punishment’
The Church has always tried to conceal abuses committed by the clergy, sometimes shuffling priests to different churches or youth camps but usually taking no action whatsoever — resulting in continued abuse and an exponential growth in the numbers of children victimized.
Number of Formal Allegations of Abuse Made
Against Priests in the U.S.
55.7% – One allegation
26.4% – Two or three allegations
17.8% – Four to nine allegations
3.5% – Ten or more allegations
“According to Church doctrine, healing can only come through forgiveness, not revenge,” explains Father Damian Astigueta, professor at the Faculty of Canon Law at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome with a specialty in criminal proceedings, in a 2017 interview with the Catholic News Agency.
“Even in a tragic case when a child has been abused, the Church is still a mother, and mercy is used for the victims and the priest,” he said, noting that abusers often have serious psychological problems that require treatment.”
Regardless of the Church’s perspective on the matter, the law will prevail. With increasing public awareness, evolving legislation, and changing statutes of limitation, clergy sex abusers of minors —like all sex abusers — will have fewer and fewer dark places to hide.
At the Mass Tort Institute, we support the attorneys who go after predators and drive media coverage, shining a glaring light on an issue that has long needed to be exposed and stopped.