Lawsuits Once Again Help Expose Clergy Sexual Abuse

Timothy Lytton

News Coverage of Cardinal Edward M. Egan’s cover up of clergy sexual abuse in the 1990s while he was the bishop of Bridgeport would be shocking if it weren’t so familiar. The list of high ranking Catholic Church officials who failed to report credible allegations of child sexual abuse by priests to law enforcement includes the most prominent prelates of this generation: Cardinal Joseph Bernadin in Chicago, Cardinal Bernard Law in Boston, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua in Philadelphia, and Cardinal Roger Mahony in Los Angeles.

The Egan case does, however, highlight one feature of this ongoing scandal that is frequently overlooked: the role that civil lawsuits have played in uncovering most of what we know about clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and in motivating Church officials to address the problem.

To begin with, plaintiffs’ have lawyers compelled Church officials to produce secret files concerning abuse allegations and to provide sworn testimony about their own failures to adequately address the problem. Media reports about Cardinal Egan’s failures in Bridgeport are based on more than 12,000 pages of memos, church records, and testimony from 23 lawsuits against the diocese. Indeed, most media coverage of the scandal–dating back to the early 1980s–has been based on these types of litigation documents.

Civil lawsuits have also shaped our understanding of the clergy sexual abuse scandal as an institutional failure on the part of Church leaders. Throughout the scandal, some within the Church have attempted to focus attention exclusively on the perpetrators, suggesting that clergy sexual abuse is merely a matter of “a few bad apples.” Others have argued that the whole matter has been blown out of proportion by plaintiffs’ lawyers and their clients seeking to make money off of the scandal by filing lawsuits. One also frequently hears suggestions that news coverage of the scandal is motivated by anti-Catholic media bias. Indeed, Cardinal Egan’s successor, Archbishop Timothy Dolan leveled this very accusation against the New York Times this fall.

By contrast, civil lawsuits have focused attention on the failures of Church officials. Plaintiffs’ lawyers sue large institutional defendants because they are better able to pay large settlements and judgments, and so clergy sexual abuse lawsuits have emphasized the failure of diocesan officials–especially bishops–to protect children from known abusers.

Media coverage of the scandal has been heavily influenced by this framing of clergy sexual abuse as an institutional failure on the part of Church officials. Litigation and trials have traditionally provided the type of drama that makes them attractive to journalists seeking to draw in readers. In addition, documents filed in court and sworn testimony provide the kind of credible sources of information that journalists like to rely upon.

By framing clergy sexual abuse as a problem of institutional failure on the part of Church officials, civil lawsuits have also motivated dioceses around the country to institute new programs to prevent sexual abuse before it occurs and to report credible allegations of sexual abuse when it does happen. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops reports that over 90 percent of dioceses have instituted such programs and have trained over 7 million people in preventing, investigating, and reporting child sexual abuse.

It is inconceivable that so many U.S. bishops would have instituted such ambitious efforts to address clergy sexual abuse in the absence of the intense media coverage and public attention generated by civil lawsuits–not to mention the liability exposure.

It has been 25 years since the first civil lawsuits were filed against Catholic Church officials for clergy sexual abuse, and much progress has been made as a result of them. That leading prelates such as Cardinal Egan are still fighting so hard to hide the record of their misdeeds indicates that there is more work to be done and that civil lawsuits against Church officials may still have a role in uncovering the truth, highlighting the misdeeds of officials, and providing much needed pressure for reform.