Churches Are Not Above the Law

It's Time To Make Wisconsin Clergy Accountable

Statement by Freethought Today editor Annie Laurie Gaylor

This was written testimony submitted today before a committee of the Wisconsin State Legislature regarding a pending reform to Wisconsin statutes. A bill has been proposed to make child abuse reporting mandatory for most clergy and raise the statutes of limitation for victims of child sexual abuse in criminal and civil proceedings.

Wisconsin is the worst state in the union in which to be a victim of a sexually abusive priest, minister or church employee. The right of such victims to sue in civil court over church negligence, culpability, and cover-ups was egregiously brought to a screeching halt by our state Supreme Court, and by Wisconsin's inadequate statute of limitations, making age 20 the final year to file civil lawsuits involving childhood sexual abuse.

In 1988, I authored the first nonfiction book sounding the alarm about the extent of the problem of sexual abuse by clergy, particularly of juveniles, called Betrayal of Trust: Clergy Abuse of Children. 

This book documented the epidemic of sexual abuse in churches of all denominations, but particularly in the Roman Catholic Church. As Catholic attorney Rev. Thomas Doyle warned in his secret report to bishops in 1987, the Catholic Church's common practice of playing "musical chairs" with molesting priests by transferring them to other, unsuspecting parishes, made the Catholic Church appear to be "an organization preaching morality and providing sanctuary to perverts."

The Church Mutual Insurance Co. of Merrill, Wis., issued a brochure for its church clients in 1986 advising churches to make major reforms, even to fingerprint all applicants for church positions, because of widespread sexual abuse, saying it "happens at churches of all denominations and at church-operated camps, schools, and day care centers."

My book has since been joined by many other expos'es over the past decade, including Betrayal, the new book by the Boston Globe's Pulitzer prize-winning investigative team, which has brought renewed attention to the plight of victims of Catholic priests and institutional cover-up.

This summer we have seen newsworthy civil settlements by the Catholic Church. The Archdiocese of Seattle, Washington, agreed this month to pay $7.87 million to settle 15 sexual abuse lawsuits against one priest. This month the Boston Archdiocese finally settled for $85 million in the case brought by 552 victims. The Archdiocese of Louisville, Kentucky, agreed in June to pay $25.7 million to 243 people.

These civil lawsuits, some of which involved cases that were not tried criminally because of criminal statutes of limitation, made it possible for the Boston Globe and other newspapers to uncover the truth, open court records, give victims and their families the leverage to demand accountability, names of perpetrators, documents showing cover-ups by church officials, and suppressed allegations.

None of this is happening in Wisconsin. Wisconsin is mired down in the bog of two state Supreme court cases, notably the decision on May 23, 1997, written by Justice Patrick Crooks, a practicing Catholic, who dismissed a civil suit against the Catholic church, saying:

"A bishop may determine that a wayward priest can be sufficiently reprimanded through counseling and prayer."

Crimes are not to be dealt with by reprimand, counseling and prayer! It is precisely that traditional Catholic Church attitude that has created the problem!

In her dissent, Justice Ann Walsh Bradley wrote:

"The First Amendment does not imbue religious organizations with blanket immunity from tort liability."

"Why should a diocesan decision to let a known pedophile work unsupervised with children enjoy ecclesiastical protection?

"The 'mercy and forgiveness' of a religious organization toward known sexually exploitative clergyman does not excuse the organization from responding in damages when he clergy uses his position to procure his next victim."

David McFarlane, the attorney for the losing plaintiff, warned when this decision came down that it would insulate culpable churches from all liability.

That is exactly what has happened.

Today's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that the Milwaukee Diocese has released a report estimating that 4.9% of the 916 diocesan priests since 1935 have "substantiated" records of abuse. I would consider this low, because who have these reports been "substantiated" by? The diocese has refused to release names, because victims do not have the muscle in our state to force them to.

The notion that religion and its adherents are "above the law" is largely responsible for the lack of justice to victims of clergy in Wisconsin. The separation of state and church, a safeguard for freedom of conscience in the United States, was never meant to make religion and its leaders immune from prosecution when they break the law or cause great harm to children and their families.

The First Amendment does not mean a lack of accountability. Its writers did not intend to allow "hot" priests or ministers to seemingly disappear. The First Amendment was never intended to countenance an underground network of pedophilia or any other kind of criminal abuse. The insular atmosphere in some churches has provided a virtual license to "Go and sin some more," when malfeasant priests or ministers have simply been transferred or expelled, with no concern for the victims or for the laws of the state.

I concur with the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests that the bill's proposed statute of limitations for civil lawsuits (raising it from age 20 to age 35, while criminal statute of limitations would raise to age 45) fails to give many past victims an opportunity to seek civil redress. Many attorneys prefer to wait until criminal prosecutions are over before proceeding with civil sanctions, so this discrepancy seems problematic.

But this bill is the first step in correcting Wisconsin's shameful and uniquely unjust legal situation. The Wisconsin legislature has stood by far too long, and needs to move swiftly to protect juveniles and their rights.

This was submitted as written testimony by Annie Laurie Gaylor (acting as an individual) on Sept. 18, 2003. Annie Laurie Gaylor is a co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., and edits the Foundation's newspaper Freethought Today.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

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