Monday, September 10, 2007

Clergy Sexual Abuse--Why Settlements Fail the Church, the Parishes, and the Victim-Survivors

In the September 6, 2007 issue of the Santa Barbara Independent, reporter Nick Welsh interviewed a victim-survivor of clergy sexual abuse who was to receive a portion of the $660 million settlement made by the Los Angeles Archdiocese. The settlement ends a four year lawsuit brought by victim-survivors who suffered from sexual abuse by diocesan priests in the 1950s and 1960s. The statements of victim-survivors to Mr. Welsh reflect the failure of the settlement to address the problem:

"...when it finally came down to the showdown, ...[the archdiocese] said, 'Here's some money. Take it. Just go away.'"

"What I really wanted was for people to look at me and say,'Robin, it's okay,'...'You were only a kid.'"

"For a mother to have a son who was molested by a priest, what do you say!...'We screwed up. We're sorry.' That would have been nice."

Welsh comments, "[U]nder the terms of the settlement, the archdiocese has never actually admitted that Father Kelly did anything wrong. What kind of an apology, [the victim-survivors] ask, is that?"

"The settlement means money, it means security. But does it make your pain go away?...No, I donn't think so. But talking about it has helped a lot."

This sad story has repeated itself in every dicocese facing abuse lawsuits. Instead of dealing with the claims consistent with its teachings, the Catholic Church has maintained an aggressive legal defense. The defense typically attempts to shred the credibility of victim-survivors, despite knowledge that there might be some truth to the claims. Victim-survivors may end up with some money, but after taxes and attorney's fees it's usually precious little to show for the effort. From the victim-survivors' perspective, the only bright part of the litigation is that it brought the issue into the light of day.

There is a better way to deal with these emotional, difficult, and challenging claims. The process is called restorative mediation. It arises from the philosophy of restorative justice, which entertains the remarkable idea that victims and offenders be able to sit down with a mediator to talk out the problem and make things right. Restorative justice has been extraordinarily successful at reducing crime, straightening out offenders, and allowing crime victims the opportunity to begin their healing journey. Applied to the clergy abuse cases, restorative mediation could do the same.

So, with this wonderful technology available to help, why isn't the Church jumping on board? The answer is not clear. Each archdiocese is a kingdom unto its own, and the archbishops call their own shots with respect the claims. Often, it's emotionally, politically, and financially easier to let the lawyers handle the problem. In addition, there appear to be unwritten doctrines that compel the Church leaders to protect the Church at all costs. If the prime directive is to protect the Church from scandal, engaging in a process that requires voluntary accountability and responsbility will be unacceptable. The teachings of Christ seem to have been subverted to the secular needs of the Church.

I have mediated several abuse cases using restorative mediation. The cases were not easy and the underlying facts pretty awful. However, the Church leadership involved in these cases walked their talk. While the process was challenging and emotional, the outcomes were significant for everyone involved. I have always felt that if the leaders involved in those cases were running things for the U.S. Catholic Church, the abuse scandal would have turned out much differently than it has.

Victim-survivors have found the process to be a helpful step on the path of their healing. These cases are not about the money. They are about respect, diginity, and dealing with a deep breach of trust. As in all difficult conflicts, collaborative cooperative engagement, not adversarial process, will usually be more productive for everyone. There is still opportunity as the remaining cases work their way through state courts and, in some cases, the bankruptcy courts. I remain hopeful that the tide will change.

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