Child sexual abuse (CSA) is not a new phenomenon. It’s been going on since the beginning of the human race. We have reached a boiling point in our responses to CSA, especially with how we address systemic abuse and cover-ups within large organizations, including but not limited to the catholic church, schools, and state organizations charged with protecting children.
Recently, the New York Times editorial board wrote, “Pope Francis has made strides in changing the culture of the papacy and in making the Catholic Church more inclusive, and he seems now to have grasped the gravity of the sickness afflicting the church.”
Unfortunately, for many victims of sexual abuse, this sickness afflicting the church has become a worldwide epidemic. While there are remedies for survivors—such as demanding more accountability, transparency, and increased participation with the administration and management of local parishes—there are civil remedies available to survivors of sexual abuse.
In many states, the biggest obstacle for survivors is the relatively short, traditional statute of limitations. A typical statute of limitations for sexual assault civil cases is two or three years in most states. However, in Michigan—in direct response to the Larry Nassar sexual assault scandal surrounding Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics—the period of limitations was expanded 10 years for an action to recover damages sustained because of criminal sexual conduct, or before the survivor’s 28th birthday, whichever comes first.
In Michigan, the period of limitations for Nassar survivors can stretch back as far as 1997, which is the approximate date that Nassar started sexually abusing his victims. But that period of limitations was carved out by Michigan lawmakers to give Nassar survivors a chance to sue for damages. No such remedy has been afforded to any other class of victims. This must be changed, and the catholic church must encourage this expansion of victims’ rights to open themselves up to making restitution for hundreds—of years of sexual abuse perpetrated by members of their rank and file, and acquiesced in by bishops, cardinals, and the Pope.
But Michigan’s legislature did not go far enough in addressing the needs of all survivors of sexual abuse, especially those sanctioned by large organizations like the catholic church. Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics have been and will continue to be held responsible for the predatory conduct of only a few offenders; Nassar is the most notorious of these few offenders. The Nassar scandal, sadly, represents the tip of the iceberg. It was a lighting rod to raise awareness that these types of “nice guy” offenders are hiding in plain sight. But how do we address the catholic church, which has thousands of offenders in local parishes all around the country?
Research has shown that many pedophiles are able to perpetrate their crimes on child victims without detection because it can take decades for the child to realize they are victims. Many of these survivors may not realize that they were victims of sexual abuse, and therefore, the period of limitations does not extend far enough. Adult manifestations of child sexual abuse often do not occur until the survivor reaches the age of 40. We have seen cases where the survivor does not report the abuse until into his 70s. Moreover, the shame and stigma of being sexually abused by an authority figure often prevent many survivors from reporting abuse, especially when that figure is seen as a pillar of the community. In Michigan, the statute of limitations stretches to the victim’s 28th birthday. For example, children who are sexually assaulted at age 17 have until their 28th birthday to sue for damages. This creates a definite problem for children who are struggling with their sexual identity, and who are intelligent enough to understand that the age of consent in Michigan for sexual contact is 16 years of age. Therefore, the statute of limitations in Michigan should be expanded to allow for all survivors, especially those who did not realize they were being victimized, to file civil actions for damages within 3 years of realizing that they were victims of sexual abuse.
State attorneys general, most notably in Pennsylvania, are doing more to investigate the systemic abuse which has taken place in their respective states. A Pennsylvania grand jury has identified more than 1,000 potential survivors of catholic sexual abuse, and famously noted, “Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades.”
The management and operations of the catholic church do not differ from state to state. The management hierarchy of the church is easily recognized: (1) Pope; (2) cardinals; (3) archbishops (4) diocesan bishops (5) priests. It would be difficult to imagine that the management of the catholic church changes much from state to state. All the symptoms of enabling predatory conduct have proven to be the same, whether we are looking at the archdiocese of Boston or Philadelphia. Catholic priests have been permitted to victimize young parishioners and pupils at an alarming rate. And rather than taking the only appropriate response to such behavior—defrocking and criminal prosecution—many bishops and parishes have chosen to either look the other way, offer counseling to the survivor, or move the priest to another parish without addressing his criminal behavior. All this has done is enable sexual predators to commit their crimes in a number of other parishes, maybe even across state lines. The Pennsylvania grand jury found that these priests were being moved from parish to parish; were permitted to victimize other victims across numerous parishes; and were protected by the church. Pennsylvania, which has a population of roughly 13 million, is a comparable state to Michigan, with a population of just under 10 million. If the Pennsylvania grand jury has identified more than 1,000 victims of catholic abuse, then we can infer that there are approximately 769 victims of catholic abuse here in Michigan alone. But how do they receive justice?
Pope Francis stands at the precipice of a worldwide crisis. The catholic church, for years, has opened its doors to persons of need: the poor, hungry, destitute, and meek. But in searching for solutions to this cataclysmic crisis, the Pope has his work cut out for him. As the New York Times pointed out, “But for what is sure to be a defining struggle of his papacy, he will need to look beyond the cardinals, prelates and priests — indeed beyond himself — for answers and solutions.”
These answers and solutions must start with a comprehensive investigation by the United States Department of Justice, state attorneys general, and local law enforcement. These ministers of justice must investigate these matters as the crimes they are; not as civil matters. But criminal prosecutions represent just one step in the process of dismantling systemic abuse. The civil courts—indeed civil lawyers who are attuned to representing survivors of sexual assault—must be prepared to give these survivors their day in court. And the state legislatures need to expand their respective statutes of limitations to allow survivors to recover damages—both restorative and punitive in nature. The injuries and trauma done to the survivors are irreversible. While they can heal and even find forgiveness, their trauma cannot be undone.
The only tried-and-true way to teach a large organization in America to institute real reform, and to prevent future injuries to their employees, constituents and clients—is to hit them in their wallets and diminish their precious bottom line. The same must happen for the catholic church to take notice of this national problem, and effectuate real change for the sake of the survivors, and not for the sake of the people who serve the church.
Law enforcement officials can offer a lot of support. It’s never too late to report a crime of sexual assault. If you are a survivor and you are ready to come forward, I would encourage you to report it, even if you think it’s too late. Holding the offender accountable in the criminal courts is an effective tool in stemming the abuse and protecting other potential victims from future harm.
As the NYT further opined, “Any credible effort at reforming the clerical culture of the church, restoring trust, instituting accountability and eradicating the cancer of sexual abuse will require the full participation of experts, prosecutors, victims and many others outside the clergy and the church — women as well as men. If that runs against tradition and practice, so be it.”
So whether you are a victim of clergy abuse or some other type of abuse, my advice to you is simple: Its never too late to stand up and fight. You are not alone. And your voice must be heard. Report these crimes to law enforcement. Know that you are not alone. Together, we can end the cycle of child sexual abuse, once and for all.
Patrick William O’Keefe is a board certified trial attorney in Michigan. A former prosecutor, Mr. O’Keefe specializes in sexual assault litigation, and has tried well over 200 jury trials in the course of his 15 year career. He resides in Mason, MI with his wife, Dr. Breanna O’Keefe, and their six children. Mr. O’Keefe encourages any and all survivors of sexual abuse to contact his office at (517) 253-0114 to schedule a free consultation.