BishopAccountability.org: The Information Blackout in New York

As a researcher, transparency advocate and Catholic, I am struck by a particular result of New York’s unusually short civil statute of limitations for child sex crimes.

New York’s religious institutions are able to maintain an information blackout about abusive clergy.

In New York, boys and girls who are sexually assaulted have only until age 23 to bring civil action against their perpetrators, and only until age 21 to sue employers who enabled their perpetrators. And the statute grants none of the exceptions common in many other states. Only Alabama, Michigan and Mississippi restrict victims as severely.

From our vantage point as researchers and librarians of the Catholic crisis in all 50 states, we at BishopAccountability.org can assess broadly the NY law’s impact on the public’s right to know.

Judging by the number of accused clerics known in states with more transparency, we estimate that the public remains in the dark about the identities of hundreds of abusive NY priests, brothers, deacons, and nuns. And the bishops and other church officials who managed them have evaded scrutiny and accountability.

Consider that 276 clergy have been accused publicly in the Boston archdiocese, while the names of only 73 accused clergy have been made public in the New York archdiocese.

In Boston, nearly all of the revelations can be traced to victims’ civil actions in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, which were possible because MA’s civil SOL included the so-called “discovery rule.” This allowed victims to file a claim within three years after discovering their injuries were caused by the abuse. The New York statute has no such flexibility.

In the Boston archdiocese:

  • 276 clergy have been identified as accused.
  • 45,000 pages of secret church files have been made public.
  • A list of accused clergy has been published by Cardinal Bernard Law’s successor, Cardinal Sean O’Malley. (Only 32 other bishops have published such lists; the remaining 140+ bishops have not.)
  • An investigation by the state Attorney General yielded a 90-page public report, detailing an “institutional acceptance of abuse” and “a massive and pervasive failure of leadership” by Law and his senior managers.
  • The U.S. Attorney found that a Boston bishop (who is now bishop of the Rockville Centre NY diocese) lied on a federal document, thereby allowing an accused priest to become a military chaplain.

In contrast, in the archdiocese of New York:

  • Only 73 clergy have been identified as accused – that’s one-quarter of those identified in Boston, and fewer than are known in the tiny diocese of Manchester NH.
  • Not a single abuse file has been released.
  • Cardinal Dolan and his predecessors have released no lists of accused NY clergy.
  • No prosecutor has scrutinized thoroughly the archdiocese’s handling of allegations, and no enabler has been held to account. Of the seven DA’s with jurisdiction, only the Westchester County DA has done any sort of probe, and it was inconsequential, yielding a strangely vague 14-page report that never mentioned the words Catholic, priest or bishop and referred to the archdiocese of New York only as “the religious institution.”

Information about institutional corruption and about many crimes of child sexual abuse are being suppressed in New York – not only in its Catholic dioceses, of course, but in all of its religious and secular institutions.

This is why it is imperative that the NY legislature finally pass the Child Victims Act (Assembly Bill 2872A and Senate Bill 63A), which would eliminate civil SOL going forward and create a one-year retroactive window in which previously expired claims would be revived.

If the bill passes as is, how many accused clergy will be identified in the NY archdiocese alone?

Conservatively, hundreds.

  • If we assume an accused priest rate of 5.9%, which is consistent with data from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, a total of 442 accused clergy from the New York archdiocese will be identified. [1]
  • If we assume that New York has the same percentage of accused priests as Boston (10.75%), more than 800 accused clergy will be identified. [2]

It is particularly important that the retroactivity not be dropped from the Child Victims Act bill, a harmful amendment to the bill that was suggested recently. The Boston archdiocese successfully negotiated such an unfortunate compromise in Massachusetts in 2014, and the SOL reform bill going forward now in Pennsylvania has been amended to eliminate retroactivity for survivors past the age of 50.

Especially in New York, where the claims of the vast majority of abuse victims are already expired, a reform law with no retroactivity would do little to resolve the state’s public safety crisis. Although most of the claims are expired, many of the predators are not.

Passage of the Child Victims Act will produce information the public deserves to know. It will equip parents to protect their children from offenders in their communities, and it will lead to stronger, more responsible, and more transparent institutions.

 

[1] Both estimated totals of accused clergy in the New York archdiocese assume a denominator of 7,500 — i.e., a total of 7,500 archdiocesan and religious order clerics who have worked in the NY archdiocese since 1950. We believe this to be a reasonable and perhaps even a conservative estimate, based on the church’s own data: a) In 2004, Cardinal Edward Egan reported a total of 3,782 active archdiocesan priests from 1950 to 2002; b) In addition, at least an equal number of religious order clergy have worked in the archdiocese during the same period, according to statistics from the Official Catholic Directory.

[2] In Boston, 10.75% or 250 of its 2,324 active archdiocesan priests since 1950 have been accused of child sexual abuse, according to Cardinal O’Malley’s own data.

 

 

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