In this era of a White House that seems impervious to the concept of accountability, you might well think this column will be about President Donald Trump. That is a tempting topic to be sure given the constitutional Framers’ baseline belief in the fallibility of humans and the tendency to abuse power in light of Trump’s uncontrollable urge to turn every moment into a moment of self-adulation. But this column is about a more absolute power exercised in a corrupt way.
Have you seen The Keepers on Netflix yet? If not, sit down and binge-watch all seven episodes, though if you are pressed for time episodes 2 and 7 paint the picture sufficiently. The plot is about the death of a Catholic nun; the story is about the sexual abuse of child after child after child and two Catholic women tracking down every clue they can. It’s a true story.
I won’t give away anymore of the plot, but rather I want to put this docuseries in historical perspective. The Keepers marks an important development in the war against child sex abuse. It has been widely praised here and here and there is every reason to expect many will view it.
The Keepers arrives against the backdrop of the major motion picture, Spotlight, which won the 2016 Academy Award for best picture. It was the story of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigative team’s uncovering of the sex abuse scandal in the Boston Archdiocese. Spotlight was a tasteful and palatable presentation of that scandal. While victims were depicted, there was no explicit discussion of priests’ sex acts on children let alone portrayals of them, and the story revolved around the Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigative reporting team as they brought to light dangerous and ugly secrets.
When that story first came out in January 2002, there was denial by the Church and an attempt by some Catholic politicians like Sen. Rick Santorum to limit the scandal to Boston as though other dioceses had no such problem. He accused Boston’s “liberalism” of causing the prolific sex abuse detailed in the story, implying that the Pennsylvania dioceses were pure. That led to fireworks on the floor of the United States Senate in 2005. It also led in part to Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham’s decision to impanel a grand jury to get to the bottom of what happened in the Philadelphia Archdiocese. The result was a 450+ page Grand Jury Report that named dozens of priests in the Philadelphia Archdiocese and described a culture of cover up, callous denial, and disposable kids. The Grand Jury recommended a number of measures to ensure greater protection of children, and made it clear that justice had been denied the vast majority of victims due to a technicality: Pennsylvania’s statutes of limitations for child sex abuse were shorter than most victims needed to come forward.
But it was still just two Archdioceses in the eyes of the public. Thus, Santorum’s NIMBY (not in my backyard) attitude was embraced by legislators across the country as they defended their local dioceses and bishops from the taint of the scandal. To quote a New York senator in that era, “You can’t take my church away from me.” Most lawmakers treated victims of clergy sex abuse as interlopers in the legislative process and had no time for them. There was a “hearing” scheduled in the New York Senate, which over 100 survivors attended, but only one lawmaker, New York Senator Thomas Duane. The advocates were preaching to one who was already converted. Elsewhere, lawmakers across the country declined to be sponsors of bills to increase justice for child sex abuse victims, and avoided any cameras that might catch them near a brave member like Assemblywoman Marge Markey who was a perennial sponsor. Press conferences were small affairs.
It was the rare politician who would take on the Catholic Church even if the cause was child sex abuse. The first exception was California where state lawmakers acted quickly after the Spotlight stories and passed a “window” permitting all victims of sex abuse to sue and/or press charges during the calendar year 2003 even if their statutes of limitations (SOLs) had expired. That was and will be the broadest statute to revive SOLs in the United States, because the Supreme Court considered the law and held that criminal SOLs may not be revived, because that would violate the Ex Post Facto Clause in Stogner v. California.
Once they recovered from the initial shock of having been caught red-handed covering up serial child sex abuse by their own priests, the Catholic bishops embarked on an expensive campaign of denial, public relations maneuvering, and lobbying against SOL reform. Their stock in trade was power—over their parishioners’ souls, consciences and salvation—a power akin to God, and they were not going to abandon that sublime authority without a fight. History was not on the bishops’ side as diocesan and religious order sex abuse scandals multiplied. Still, instead of joining the bandwagon for children, they dug themselves in for a war against SOL reform. If they could bury the SOL movement, the secrets could stay secret, and they could keep the damning files, priest lists, and facts from entering the public square. Most important, they might return to the earlier era of power and reverence. They didn’t care that they were blocking justice for incest victims and boarding school victims, as well as their own. Their wish to move back in time was a pipe dream as victims poured out from every corner of our society.
It took another four years for another state with a sizable Catholic population to dip its toe into the waters of justice for child sex abuse victims, and that was Delaware, which in 2007 doubled California’s window and went even further by eliminating the civil and criminal SOLs into the future. Eventually, some states ignored the bishops’ opposition, particularly those states without a dominating Catholic presence, like Minnesota and Hawaii, but others with a significant Catholic population, like Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, stalled as lawmakers bowed to the bishops instead of lifting up the victims.
In the early years following the Boston disclosures, few ordinary citizens included “statutes of limitations” let alone “SOL reform” in their vocabulary, but the plight of sex abuse victims facing expired SOLs started to take hold in the culture. The bishops routinely repeated that the SOL laws should remain the same, i.e., too short for most victims, because enlarging the SOLs specifically targeted them (not true but it is what they said). Then Penn State entered with Jerry Sandusky creating his own charity, coaching at area high schools, and running summer football camps to supply boys for his sexual compulsion. The deathgrip the bishops had on public policy relating to child sex abuse victims therefore began to weaken. It really wasn’t just about Boston or the Church. Too many victims in too many dioceses combined with the Penn State victims and the cascade of scandals in boarding schools, public schools, and sports, which made the issue nearly impossible to ignore. Survivors became more and more vocal in state capitols across the country, with even Catholic lawmakers turning against the bishops and their lobbyists to choose justice for the victims, like New York’s Assemblywoman Marge Markey and Reps. Mark Rozzi and Tom Murt in Pennsylvania. Catholic voices like VOTF and the Catholic Whistleblowers and Call to Action steadily increased their volume to demand the elimination and revival of child sex abuse SOLs. Still, there remained numerous states where victims from the past have been denied justice.
When Spotlight was released January 2016, the Catholic bishops urged parishioners to avoid the movie. Their tactics didn’t keep the movie under wraps. Signaling to lawmakers around the country that they could and should take a stronger stance for children as I discuss here. Hollywood awarded the movie two Academy Awards.
The Keepers 17 months later comes on the scene right after extensive coverage of one elite boarding prep school after another has been identified as a place where pedophiles found children and the institution failed the children, 368 female gymnasts named an Olympic team doctor as their sexual abuser, and Baylor University had to turn itself upside down as a sexual assault scandal ripped through its administration and the football program.
The Keepers marks a new era by taking another angle on the prism of the mind-blowing size and depth of the sex abuse scandal in the largest Christian institution in the world. It does have some familiar themes: Bishop Malooly, who is now the Bishop of Wilmington, Delaware, was depicted in the docuseries as a person who coldly offered a victim a “boat” in an obvious bid to appease him. Malooly responded recently “[i]n the spirit of truth” he didn’t know about the abuser until 1992. And when he was told there was a report in 1967, hey, how could he know: he “was a college student” at the time.
What is extraordinary about The Keepers and why it is likely to have a strong effect in favor of victims is that it depicts a community of Catholics who are united to find justice for the victims as each one is revealed. It’s not the victim against the church or parish, as the bishops often triangulate the relationship, but rather good and decent Catholics against base evil. And that evil resides in an uncaring and murderously dangerous church that has failed its most vulnerable. The level of betrayal in the story puts bishops and priests in Dante’s lowest level of hell.
The Keepers will not be the last word on child sex abuse in the Church or anywhere else, but it is evidence of a culture waking up to do what is right and to recognize what is wrong. That is something lawmakers should take into account as they listen to the bishops’ lobbyists reciting the now-tired litany of propaganda against justice for the victims. They always say it will result in too many cases and lots of false claims. Untrue They also say that there will be bankruptcies as though the church is going to be destitute, even though its wealth and real estate holdings are jaw dropping, particularly in cities like New York. Finally, they argue that they are being treated unfairly because public schools aren’t included in a bill, but states like New York and Pennsylvania have started to add public schools to the list of institutions to be held accountable, which guts their “unfairness” argument.
When they are backed into a corner as they currently are in New York, the bishops’ lobbyists start singing like a canary for eliminating the criminal SOLs. As though after more than a decade of attacking the victims and protecting the church, they can now take the high ground. Yet, it makes no sense to eliminate the criminal SOLs for the perpetrators but to leave in place short SOLs for the institutions that created the conditions for the sex abuse. The victim deserves justice all the way around. Thus, I believe that the time is not too far away when child sex abuse victims will be vindicated in every state, and this chapter of church history will be shut by lawmakers who see where the truth and goodness lie.
Too bad the Church didn’t figure out the end game long ago. It could have saved a lot of victims and their families a lot of pain. Nothing makes this point better than The Keepers. I repeat: sit down and watch it.