Guest Op-Ed: Catholic Church not only institution deserving of scrutiny
By Stephen A. Weiss, Seeger Weiss LLP
New Jersey has been at the epicenter of a reckoning for the Catholic Church. Last month, Governor Phil Murphy signed into law a bill that gives survivors of sexual abuse more time to hold institutions like the Church accountable, which for decades swept allegations under the rug. Meanwhile, the Attorney General’s office has established a task force to determine the extent of the Church’s cover-up. And the former Archbishop of Newark, Theodore McCarrick, was laicized for sexual misconduct against adults and minors.
While the new law in New Jersey was largely framed as a way to hold the Church accountable – and it certainly does – abuse is neither a “Catholic” problem nor a specifically religious one. As more survivors now feel empowered to tell their stories, we are learning that too many powerful institutions that were supposed to serve children were in fact abusing them. While the reckoning may have started with the Catholic Church, that is hardly where it will end.
The Boy Scouts of America is another example of a powerful, trusted institution that has hidden sexual abuse for decades. The so-called “perversion files” detail Scout leaders with a history of sexual abuse dating back to the 1920s – and yet this information was not made public until several years ago when the courts forced the organization to do so. The scope of the abuse the Boy Scouts covered up is hard to fathom; according to recent analysis, nearly 8,000 volunteers were accused of child sex abuse.
The Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts are certainly among the most well-known institutional offenders, but they are not the only ones. In fact, child sex abuse is more common than most people realize. According to Darkness to Light, a non-profit focused on preventing child sex abuse, one in ten children will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday.
For too long, the public has blindly trusted institutions in our communities to handle these situations properly. We have trusted that our churches, boy scout leaders, coaches and camp counselors were protecting our children, and reporting abuse. Sadly, we know now that isn’t always true. In fact, in some cases, these trusted institutions are seriously hurting our children and covering it up.
So how do we respond?
First, we give survivors of abuse the support they deserve and need. The average survivor of sexual abuse doesn’t come forward until age 52, according to Child USA. The old statute of limitations for these civil cases in New Jersey would have expired by this time – so there was nothing survivors could do to get justice in a court of law. Fortunately, that’s changed. Going forward, all survivors will have the extra time they need.
Starting in January, there will also be a onetime, two-year opportunity for survivors to file civil claims no matter when the abuse occurred. For those that are ready, this window is a potentially life-changing opportunity.
Second, institutions have to stop considering themselves above the law. Time and again, we see that they avoid reporting allegations of abuse to law enforcement and instead conduct internal “investigations.” These sham proceedings are designed to sweep allegations under the rug and protect their own reputations, not the victim. The default procedure for any person who learns of abuse is to report it to law enforcement, without delay.
Lastly, thankfully, we are in the midst of a cultural awakening where society and government have come together to empower survivors to come forward, confront their abusers, and share their stories. The impact this has on those who are still coming to terms with the abuse they suffered cannot be overstated. The bravery of these individuals has fostered a renaissance of self-healing and is paving the way for future generations, who now know they will be listened to and believed – an opportunity that in the past was systemically foreclosed. We must all support these survivors on their journey, even when up against the most powerful of forces.
Stephen A. Weiss is a founding partner of New Jersey-based Seeger Weiss LLP and longtime advocate for survivors of sexual abuse. He represents more than three dozen survivors of sexual abuse in New Jersey and more than 380 nationwide.