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Breaking the Code of Silence

Court ruling means Pope, bishops might testify in abuse cases

By Dave Malaska · July 13th, 2010 · News
Two weeks ago, when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from the Vatican, plaintiffs claiming to be sexually abused at the hands of priests and betrayed by the church's effort to keep those crimes quiet earned their biggest court victory to date.

In fact, after decades of losses, it felt like the victims' first real win, says Judy Jones, the Midwest associate director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).

"Frankly, I was a bit surprised," Jones says. "For the better part of 30 years we've had so many defeats, we sort of expected another one. Instead, we got a huge victory. Finally, there was something to give thousands of victims some hope."

The Holy See's petition to the court, an appeal of an earlier decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Oregon — in which church attorneys claimed immunity from civil cases because the Vatican is a foreign sovereign authority — would have ended three abuse cases that named the church hierarchy as co-defendants.

Instead, the case in which the petition was filed, an eight-year-old case in which an unnamed Oregon man was allegedly abused multiple times by Portland priest Father Andrew Ronan, will go forward and church officials will be compelled to testify in the case and open secret church files for the first time.

According to the lawsuit, the abuse occurred in 1965 after Ronan already had abused seminarians in Ireland and other children in Chicago. When Servite officials of Ronan's order learned of the prior abuse, they merely shuffled him to other assignments, which led him to Oregon. Meanwhile, the Vatican knew of Ronan's deeds, the suit alleges, and failed to act to protect further abuse victims.

Just what the Vatican knew and when could finally be revealed as the Supreme Court's decision allows the case to move into the discovery phase, where attorneys will have access to church documents concerning the case.

Also, church officials — including Pope Benedict XVI — could be called to testify.

Among items that could be culled from the investigation, Benedict's involvement has the potential to be the bombshell. Last year, it was revealed that Benedict, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was author of a 2001 edict to all bishops that sealed the cases under the papal "secretum pontificium," a papal order of silence.

Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul, Minn.-based attorney specializing in church abuse, is involved in the cases. He says he wouldn't call Benedict to Portland to testify but would expect his cooperation in testifying from Rome.



Also, while the recent Supreme Court decision is a win, Anderson isn’t yet calling it a victory.

"There's no doubt that it knocked down that first barrier that the Vatican put up that said, 'We're above the law,' but I also don't doubt that it was only the first barrier," says Anderson, who is representing a client who filed a fourth lawsuit last week that targets the Holy See. "I've no doubt they will put up every possible technical impediment to deny transparency and every legal requirement.

"It's taken us eight years to get the Oregon case to this point. The church has already shown they're willing to spend a great deal of money, expend a great deal of energy and use any influence they can to keep their secrets, but lies can't last forever."

Legal experts and victim advocates also say that, while the Supreme Court decision is a win in cases which specifically name the Vatican as a defendant, it has little effect on other abuse cases. In Ohio, for example, hundreds of abuse cases have died on the vine because the state courts have followed a strict interpretation about the statute of limitations.

Dan Frondorf, president of SNAP's Cincinnati chapter, saw his case end because of that interpretation.

"It's great that discovery in the Oregon case can finally go forward and we can find some of the other abusers that the church has successfully covered,” says Frondorf, now 45 years old, who says he was abused by a priest while attending Elder High School. “Any time more information comes to light, when you shine a light into dark places, ultimately kids will be safer.”

But like countless others, his case ultimately was lost because of the statute of limitations. Ohio courts maintain that the limitation extends to 12 years from the time of the abuse, or the abuse victim's 18th birthday, regardless of a number of factors. It's a hard line, considering that most victims of priests were young and it takes them time to gather the strength to come forward, Frondorf says.

"I didn't come forward for a long time because I thought I was this man's only victim," he adds. "When it became clear that he abused many others, I finally felt that I needed to come forward. By then, it was too late."

Since then, Frondorf has been involved in SNAP, helping counsel other victims and working with other advocacy groups to get the state legislature to change Ohio law to loosen the limitations. So far, they've been unsuccessful.

That inflexibility has given Ohio a bad reputation, Anderson says.

"Ohio's interpretation of the law, by both the courts and the legislature, is arcane,” he says. “It has to be the worst state in that regard, or if not the worst, it's among the worst. Their interpretation has made it almost impossible for survivors to expose their abuse. At a time when even the Vatican has said the statute of limitations has to be reexamined, when the church acknowledges that it needs to be updated, Ohio still adheres to the old thinking and methodologies.”

In most other states, allowances are made for victims of sexual abuse who have suppressed memories, discovered the extent of abuse by habitual predators or various other factors that could delay reporting the crimes. But in Ohio, the 12-year limit is hard and fast and looks to remain so for the near future.

"I never thought that I'd say the Vatican would be more forward-looking than a state government, but in this case it certainly is," Anderson says.

In Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, there are no lawsuits pending against the church for sexual abuse at the hands of its clergy and certainly none naming the Holy See as a defendant. But new allegations of abuse keep arising, Jones claims.

"We're still working to get Ohio to move on the statute of limitations, but until we get them to, we continue to work with victims,” Jones says. “We still have new people coming to us all the time. We get 80-year-old men, men who have never told their wives or anybody else that they were abused, that finally get the courage to come forward. They're well beyond the statute of limitations. It's taken them a lifetime to get over what happened to them."

Frondorf has lost two friends to suicide, men who were unable to cope with their abuse. Most victims, he says, are left to deal with the ramifications of abuse quietly.

Although he credits the Archdiocese of Cincinnati for the efforts its has made — fingerprinting and doing extensive background checks for its personnel — he says he'd like to see more from the leaders of the church he grew up in.

"The big thing is there's still a lack of openness,"
Frondorf says. "They continue to not disclose the names of priests that have information on. They won't say where those priests are now, whether they're still working with kids. Some priests have been suspended, and only the Archdiocese knows who they are and where they are. The public should know that information. The safety of children should always be the first priority, not the protection of abusers."

 
 
 
 

 

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