Abuse Crackdown Gives Some Religious Institutions a Pass

By Wayne Laugesen
National Catholic Register
July 6, 2006

[See also Abuse Cover-Up in Schools Seen As Church's Deep Pockets Targeted, by Wayne Laugesen, National Catholic Register (7/6/06).]

Los Angeles (National Catholic Register) If you're tempted to say: Of course they cover abuse more in a religious context, think again.

Consider this scenario: More than 500 victims of childhood sexual abuse sued this institution for more than $400 million. The institution, acknowledging sexual abuse by adults in its schools, filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy to save its property and other assets from liquidation.

Though it sounds like a blockbuster lawsuit against the Catholic Church, it's not. It's the untold story of a 2004 lawsuit against Hare Krishnas in the United States.

Unlike sexual abuse charges against Catholics, the lawsuit failed to inspire press coverage or state legislation designed to aid victims' lawsuits.

"When we filed for Chapter 11 we got no press coverage. When Portland's Catholic diocese went into Chapter 11 it got front page of the Los Angeles Times," said Hare Krishna lawyer David Liberman, a devout Hare Krishna who filed the bankruptcy. "I was very pleased to be representing Krishna Identity, and not the Catholic Church."

Liberman said most of the cases involved teachers abusing children at Hare Krishna schools, and he said many were valid complaints. The lack of press coverage, he said, helped in his legal strategy by preventing public outcry and political maneuvering by plaintiffs' lawyers and politicians.

Perhaps just as obscure was the largest single-victim judgment against a religious institution in history the $105 million judgment against the Episcopal Church's Porter Gaud School in October 2000. It barely made the news and remains unknown to most Americans.

By contrast, when the Boston Globe began a 2002 series of reports about mishandled complaints of sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston, newspapers around the country began a feeding frenzy. Martin Nussbaum, a Colorado attorney who defends churches, researched media attention given to allegations against the church and found that by April 2002, in response to the Globe's series of articles, the nation's newspapers were printing stories about the Boston cases on average of every nine minutes 160 stories a day. By year's end, American newspapers had printed 21,000 stories of mostly decades-old sexual abuse by priests.

Feminist author Wendy McElroy is quick to defend the church against what she perceives as "anti-Catholicism" and hysteria surrounding decades-old sexual abuse allegations.

"There has always been a very strong anti-Catholic strain in American history," McElroy told the Register. "Anti-Catholicism is a big part of the American psyche."

It is also a major reason why politicians throughout the country find it appealing to target the church with state laws that eliminate statutes of limitations to facilitate lawyers in suing the church for old sexual abuse charges, she said. No other organization, she admitted, has been targeted with a retroactive alteration of the nation's fundamental laws.

"The targeting of Catholics appeals to a lot of constituents who aren't Catholic and to a lot of former Catholics who have rebelled against church teachings," McElroy said. "A lot of people take pleasure in seeing attacks on all things Catholic."

Wayne Laugesen, who writes from Boulder, Colo., is a National Catholic Register correspondent.


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