Transitional Justice and the Legacy of Child Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church

By King, Elizabeth B. Ludwin | Albany Law Review, Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

Transitional Justice and the Legacy of Child Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church


King, Elizabeth B. Ludwin, Albany Law Review


I. INTRODUCTION

In 1998, John Geoghan, a Massachusetts priest, was defrocked--stripped of any rights to perform as an ordained priest--for molesting children. (1) Four years later, the Archbishop of Boston, Bernard Law, arguably one of the most influential people in the state, resigned from his position upon revelations that he knew of Geoghan's actions and yet chose to send him to other parishes where he would still be in an environment with minors. (2) In other parishes around and outside the United States, similar scenarios were, and had been, occurring for years: priests using their positions in order to engage in sexual acts with minors. (3) When survivors began to speak up, they and their families were often offered "hush money" in order to prevent a scandal. (4) Although the sexual abuse crisis came to the forefront in 2002 due to the investigative journalist team at the Boston Globe, reports of the sexual abuse of children by members of the clergy had been surfacing since the 1950s. (5) In the fifteen years since the story broke, the Catholic Church has pursued various avenues to address the legacy of sexual abuse by members of the clergy. (6) From transferring priests to other parishes, therapy, and out-of-court settlements with the families of victims, the Catholic Church's response has largely focused on the Church itself, while the victims are swept under the rug. (7)

Although the legacy of the sexual abuse of minors was not confined to one country in particular and the perpetrators were not state actors, analyzing the Church's response through the lens of transitional justice, a field that examines States' responses to human rights abuses by a former regime, (8) highlights the gaps in accountability. Transitional justice is not, admittedly, a perfect lens through which to examine the Church's reaction to an epidemic of abuse, given that the Church is not a State (though it wields power worldwide). (9) Nevertheless, it can be helpful in highlighting accountability gaps in the Church's response to the sexual abuse crisis.

Transitional justice came about largely in response to the human rights abuses carried out by authoritarian regimes in South America in the 1970s and 1980s. (10) Since then, transitional justice has come to include the myriad responses a government employs in its efforts to seek justice and peace for victims of a prior regime. (11) Yet, assessing the Church's reaction to the legacy of the sexual abuse of minors through the lens of transitional justice is not as revolutionary as it seems. As the Church tries to redefine itself as an institution that will not tolerate sexual abuse, it is finding itself in a moment of change. Thinking of the legacy of abuse in the Catholic Church in terms of transitional justice can frame its response in a way that makes it easier to see the gaps in accountability and justice.

This article argues that, for all its efforts at addressing the sexual assault of minors by priests, the Church has failed the survivors it created. By focusing so much on cleaning its own house, the Church has neglected to address the needs of the victims. (13) Efforts at accountability that are survivor-focused, such as truth commissions, can help establish a record and acknowledge survivors' suffering. (14) Unfortunately, an analysis of the Church's approach to the epidemic of the sexual abuse of minors by priests reveals that, while the Church has made many changes to address this issue internally, its handling of the survivors and their experience has fallen short. (15) Nearly all of its initiatives focus on the Church and its personnel, not on those who were on the receiving end of priestly abuse. (16) Although the Church has set up a commission and the pope has promoted the establishment of a tribunal to try bishops who covered up the abuse, (17) by and large survivors have been left out of the conversation.

Part I of this article endeavors to relate the scope of the sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy. …

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