OPED: Re-thinking the grand jury's recommendations
The Pennsylvania grand jury tasked with examining child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church asserts that the only means for victims to obtain “care and compensation” is by suing. If this is the best that we have to offer, then we need to consider a radically different approach.
Within our legal system, a lawsuit is often the closest thing we have to a personal acknowledgement of the harm someone has suffered. Reading comments from victims in Pennsylvania, many reveal their frustration that their painful stories were concealed. Those who did speak up believed that no one was listening. The courthouse must seem like the only place where they can go to bring closure to a dark chapter in their lives. However, litigation is far from personal.
Lawsuits are designed to be adversarial. Victims’ stories are reduced to sterile pleadings shuffled among court clerks and lawyers in a bewildering process which often takes years to conclude. Most cases settle with little or no public attention. What lies at the end of this ordeal is just a computer-generated check, less the agreed upon lawyer’s contingency fee. This might be compensation, but it is certainly not care. And, there are other downsides to litigation.
Rather than promoting an environment conducive to transparency, lawsuits incentivize organizations to conceal. An overwhelming concern for institutional protection keeps organizations from volunteering information which has a strong likelihood of getting them sued. In a perverse way, the very legal system designed to get justice for those who have been harmed is also a barrier to openness.
Victims’ advocates maintain that child sexual abuse is not just a Catholic problem. Do other churches, schools and organizations serving youth, which may have skeletons in their own closets, look at what is happening to the Catholic Church now and feel a desire to voluntarily air their dirty laundry too? Not likely. And, as Cathleen Palm of the Center for Children’s Justice points out, suing only works if the institution has money.
Organizations with lots of assets and good insurance are big targets. Law firms are waiting to take such cases on contingency fees. If your abuser was shielded by a local youth organization with no money and no insurance, good luck. Nobody gets care with a legal settlement, but turnips can’t even offer compensation.
Considering the shortcomings of the civil courts, is there a better way to bring the abundance of abuse cases into the light while also providing the care and compensation demanded by the grand jury? If we are willing to be more creative in finding a solution, there is.
The post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa was just such a game changer. South Africans avoided a wave of vengeance by inviting both victims and offenders to testify openly to past crimes. Rather than incentivizing offenders to keep secrets, the program provided the space for truth. This approach sought first to get the truth out, with the belief that victims and society benefited from knowing it.
We can take a page from this example by empowering an independent truth commission to address past abuse claims in Pennsylvania. Victims can be heard, and those who harbored abusers can acknowledge secrets too long kept. Institutions with the courage to participate will make substantial contributions to a state-managed victims’ compensation fund, proportional to their balance sheets and the abuse they previously hid. Participation will be painful, but purifying.
Focusing on restoration rather than retribution incentivizes cooperation. In my experience as a lawyer, people generally want to do the right thing, but they often have to be talked into it.
Mutual and unconditional recognition of the truth brings restoration, which then allows for closure. Victims deserve justice and compensation, without having to resort to the impersonal realm of the courts. On the other end, churches, schools and organizations broken by the betrayals of the past can finally begin to move out from under the shadows of shame which have so enveloped the many good people who serve and are served by these damaged institutions. This is healing full circle.
Pennsylvania can be a model for compassionately addressing this tragedy if we are courageous enough to take an unconventional, but genuinely comprehensive, approach. With so much darkness choking out the light for so long, that will not be easy; but appealing to our collective better angels is worth the effort.
— Paul Schemel is a Pennsylvania state representative, lawyer and Catholic. He also holds an international diploma in restorative justice.