Editorial: Holding Church Accountable

Journal Sentinel [Milwaukee WI]
March 9, 2003

Circuit Judge Michael Guolee is expected to hear arguments this morning on whether to dismiss lawsuits brought against the Milwaukee Catholic Archdiocese by alleged victims of clergy sexual abuse. In another state, the question probably would be moot. But this is Wisconsin, where the state Supreme Court in 1995 said essentially that the church could not be sued for the actions of its priests.

That decision and the state's too-narrow statute of limitations in such cases put the courts out of reach of many victims seeking justice - justice that, in this society, is often measured in monetary terms. Victims have been left with too little leverage over church officials. This doesn't mean the archdiocese has done nothing to help victims - in some cases, the archdiocese has done a good deal - but it does mean the conversation has been pretty one-sided.

We join victim advocacy groups in hoping that Guolee does not dismiss the suits, which were filed in December (five more suits were filed last week) by five plaintiffs represented by Minnesota attorney Jeffrey Anderson. He is hoping the courts will change their earlier rulings. He and the victims deserve the chance to argue for that change.

But no matter how Guolee rules, the suits serve as a reminder of how important it is for the Legislature to change the law, as state Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) and Rep. Peggy Krusick (D-Milwaukee) have proposed. Among other things, their legislation would require clergy to report suspected sexual abuse of minors, allow victims to sue churches for the actions of their clergy and raise the age for victims pressing civil or criminal charges.

People want to trust the Catholic Church and its officials. But many have difficulty doing so. Some priests have abused children. Some bishops have covered up abuse cases. And the church doesn't help when it promises one thing and turns around and does something else.

Before his retirement last year, former Archbishop Rembert Weakland promised to release the names of archdiocesan priests who had faced credible accusations of sexual abuse of minors. His successor, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, publicly supported that promise and seemed to bring to the archdiocese a fresh and promising new outlook toward victims. But Dolan said last week that the names would not be released after all because some victims had said they would feel revictimized by seeing the names in print.

That may be true, but it's also very convenient for the archdiocese and contrary to what other victims say. Victims' advocates argue that making the names public could encourage other victims to come forward and get the help they need. By not releasing the names, the archdiocese is itself raising the question of whether it really wants more victims to come forward.

If church officials want to change that perception, they need to change some of the ways they do business. Releasing the names would help. Engaging in real mediation with victims and their lawyers (who would be serving perhaps in a pro bono capacity) would help. Supporting changes in state law would help perhaps most of all, sending as it would the message that church officials really do believe in accountability.

Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.