Seven years of scandals? Try 25

Sunday evening the Catholic diocese of Wilmington, Del. filed for bankruptcy protection -- just ahead of the start of Monday morning trials to weigh the claims of potentially hundreds of victims of clergy sex abuse. This is big news here in the United States -- and also abroad. As in the Irish Times article just referenced, it is being treated as a business story as well as, if not more, than a religion story.

But the writer of the Telegraph article seems to have suffered a spot of hopefully temporary amnesia.

"This is a painful decision, one that I had hoped and prayed I would never have to make," the Rev W. Francis Malooly, the bishop of the diocese, said in a statement on the diocese's website.

Wilmington is the seventh US Catholic diocese to seek bankruptcy protection since the church abuse scandal erupted seven years ago in the Archdiocese of Boston.

The Wilmington diocese covers Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland and serves about 230,000 Catholics.

Well, no. The sexual abuse scandals, or the revelations and lawsuits and victim's rights movements, didn't begin to erupt seven years ago. If you want an official beginning, one where the press really began to pay attention, it would be with the charges and trial of the Rev. Gilbert Gauthe in a small Louisiana community more than 25 years ago. Read that story (or this article), and you get what was a fresh look at the tragedies whose repercussions have at intervals rocked the Catholic Church since.

Part of what's going on in the Wilmington story is that the state allowed for a two-year lifting of the statute of limitations moratorium on sex abuse cases against the diocese. So some of the claims may indeed be decades-old, as this Baltimore Sun article points out:

The Wilmington diocese faces a flood of litigation unleashed by the Delaware Child Victims Act of 2007, which opened the two-year window during which individuals could file claims no matter how long ago the abuse was alleged to have occurred. The window closed in July.

In Maryland, where Archdiocese of Baltimore officials said earlier this decade that 83 priests or men in religious orders had been accused of abuse since the 1930s, repeated attempts to enact similar legislation have been unsuccessful. Without such a law, an archdiocesan spokesman said, a bankruptcy filing here is unlikely.

Of course, the "local" press would have a strong interest this story -- and because some of the accused clergy apparently were also in Maryland parishes, the Sun includes the local angle. One question I haven't seen addressed is what influenced the state of Delaware to lift the statute of limitations -- while Maryland did not? As well as the ethical ones, there are most likely financial and political ones.

Let me give a cheer for the home team (oh yes,can you believe our Phillies?) and argue that the combo by Godbeat pro David O'Reilly and colleague Mari Schafer in the Philadelphia Inquirer explores thoroughly many of the important facets of this complex story. O'Reilly and Schafer dig pretty deep into the business angle, and offer a few bits of information I didn't see in other pieces -- including this:

Several suits also name two religious orders, the Norbertines and the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, and charge that their members abused students at high schools they operate within the diocese.

Only the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington Inc. is seeking reorganization under Chapter 11. Its parishes are legally distinct corporations under state law, although a state superior court is due to rule on whether parish property can be included as part of the diocese's assets.

The implications of these lawsuits could be profound, not solely for the diocese, but for parishes and these two religious orders (my daughter attended a Norbertine-supervised parochial elementary school). In a small diocese, with a large amount of potential victims, the possibilities of multiple judgements against the diocese could change the face of Catholicism in Delaware.

So it's good that the writers also spoke to lay Catholics -- although no one who allegedly was abused. If the article had focused solely on lawyers and spokespeople, it would seemed even more like a giant chess game than it is already. However, it would have been good if a writer had interviewed a parish priest, or a brother in a monastery. How is he feeling as his diocese, and his brother clergy, go through another trial in the court of public opinion?

Sadly, what sometimes gets lost in these stories is the humanity, not only of the alleged victims, but of the clergy, the alleged perpetrators, and yes, of the lawyers -- not to mention laypeople in parishes where their "Father" might have been an abuser. If the Wilmington story continues to be covered mostly as a business deal (which it is) and the psychological and spiritual angles are omitted, it may be an indication of the fact that we've been hearing these awful tales for almost a quarter-century. But that still won't make it right.

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