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Morris County, New Jersey

November 4, 2004

Bishops Will Do Whatever It Takes To Win

By Mark Vincent Serrano

During an internship for a big city prosecutor's office, I remember witnessing the courtroom protocol that was applied by a judge when a defendant accepted a plea agreement. The judge ran through a series of questions, all designed to ensure that the perpetrator was not coerced to accept the deal from the prosecutor, but was agreeing to the arrangement of his own free will. "Do you acknowledge that the plea you are about to submit is an act of your own volition?" intoned the judge from the bench.

This exchange comes to mind some 20 years later as I consider the hardball legal tactics that Catholic Bishops are using against clergy sexual abuse victims in civil proceedings today. When bishops attempt to have lawsuits by victims dismissed, they are making an act of volition. In nearly all cases the church knows that the claims are credible and victims suffer significantly from the effects of the abuse. So, should bishops as moral leaders in this country choose to employ such tactics?

No one, not even victims of clergy sexual abuse, would deny the church its right to defend itself in court. Yet most bishops will do whatever it takes to win, instead of doing whatever it takes to win fair, in an honorable and Christian way. Employing legal technicalities over the merits of the case takes priority as a legal strategy every time. In addition to harming the plaintiffs, such tactics tend to discourage other victims from reporting new claims of abuse, thus limiting the bishops' liability exposure even further. Though bishops may think they can wear down victims with a predatory legal strategy, the net effect of the bishops' actions is often to strengthen the resolve of plaintiffs to gain vindication in court.

Statutes of limitations have been the primary tool of the defense to avoid legal liability for the devastation of young lives by child rapists in the Catholic priesthood. Prosecutors, judges, legislators and others around the country having worked assiduously to make it easier for victims to seek justice in court over the past three years by revising, removing, and overruling these statutes. Like the Berlin Wall, archaic and arbitrary legal devices like the statutes of limitations on child sexual abuse cases have finally begun to be dismantled in many states.

Take the case of Father James Hanley in the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey. Last year Hanley admitted the scope of his crimes in sworn testimony, having sexually molested two-dozen children. Hanley also noted that Bishop Frank Rodimer, who retired this year, knew there were at least a dozen victims when he was informed about Hanley's child-molesting in 1985. Despite this and other incontrovertible evidence, Rodimer, and now his successor, Bishop Arthur Serratelli, have been fighting to have the lawsuits by 21 Hanley victims and several victims of other priests thrown out of court. When the Hanley lawsuits were filed in January, the bishops' spokeswoman even stated that the diocese would "vigorously defend" themselves against these claims before the diocese had even reviewed the suit. Hanley, who voluntarily left the priesthood last year, receives a church pension, health benefits, and an apartment in church subsidized housing while his many victims have to fight just to see their day in court.

The approach by these two bishops is followed by many other hard-liners around the country. Yet their actions do stand in contrast to some dioceses in New Jersey (including Camden, Metuchen, and Newark) and elsewhere throughout America that have settled claims out of court, even in cases that would not have survived legal technicalities in the courtroom.

In a hearing this week on the motion to have the lawsuits thrown out of court -- the first time Father Hanley's name has been uttered in a court of law since his rampage of sexual assaults -- State Superior Court Judge Deanne Wilson fortunately ruled that the cases should proceed. Her ruling was based in part on her belief that "facts never hurt justice" and justice can best be served in these cases by continuing the legal process, particularly considering the heinous acts involved. Referencing legal precedents, Judge Wilson also compared the lawsuits against Bishop Rodimer and the Diocese of Paterson to other New Jersey cases, stating that "instead of educating and caring for [children], they violated their first obligation: 'to do no harm'."

Most American Catholics hope that the bishops have ended their legacy of concealing criminals and denying victims justice and compassion from the church. Yet if lay Catholics knew how much of their charitable contributions are spent on defense attorneys and public relations firms by bishops to continue to fight these civil cases against clergy sexual abuse victims, they would be outraged. Such church financial data are not disclosed to faithful churchgoers even today.

Let's judge the bishops by their actions and not their words. When using the legal system to deny victims their day in court, bishops should be asked similar questions that the judge did back in my internship days: "Do you acknowledge that the tactics you are about to use are acts of your own volition and no one is coercing you to do it?" Catholics might further ask: "What is your legal and moral thinking for pursuing this course of action against victims, Bishop?"

Mark Vincent Serrano is a former resident of Mendham, New Jersey, and a survivor of child sexual abuse perpetrated by Father James Hanley. Mr. Serrano is now a national advocate for child sexual abuse victims (www.snapnetwork.org). He is not a plaintiff in the referenced lawsuit against the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests