THE BLOG

Kavanagh Case Tragic for New York

12/22/2010 07:01 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

After an eight-year review by the Catholic Church of allegations of perpetrating childhood sexual abuse, Charles M. Kavanagh, an influential Monsignor who had overseen fundraising for the Archdiocese of New York, was defrocked last week

We should all feel safer now that the powers-that-be have taken care of this problem priest, right?

Wrong.

Kavanagh may no longer use his collar to pave his way to children, but because the New York State statutes of limitation (SOLs) expired decades ago in this case, he remains free to cast his predator's net far and wide. And we have no secular ruling, so the Church's conclusions amount to nothing more than support for allegations of abuse in the civil sphere.
Indeed, here in New York, victims of childhood sexual abuse must file criminal charges before they are 23 or civil claims before they are 28. It is estimated that one in four girls and one in five boys are sexually abused and only 10 percent of victims ever go to authorities. It is also fact that survivors typically need decades to come forward and the legal system offers the only viable means of identifying child predators who are operating under the radar against our children.

So, because the criminal SOLs had already expired in this case, no such charges could be filed. Moreover, no criminal trial could be held nor could a plea deal be reached, meaning he cannot be incarcerated for his alleged heinous crimes. In fact, Kavanagh cannot even be put on a sex offender registry. As a result, if he were to attempt to get another position near children, a background check would not uncover any conviction.

The victim, having gone through eight years of hearings, not to mention years of suffering in silence emotionally and physically, also has no recourse. With the civil SOLs long expired, the best he can get out of this entire matter is that the Church apparently agrees that he was abused by one of its own. But for the damage done to him as a child, and for the scars with which he is still burdened as an adult, he is simply out of luck.

Religious courts are at best internal dispute resolution mechanisms. They do not serve the public's interest in justice, accountability, and fairness. Rather, a church trial is only about the priest's pension and collar, and never about shutting down child predators. In fact, church "trials" do not have to be made public so they do not even serve the salutary end of giving society at large the facts its needs to protect its children. Even if the Church hierarchy right now held canonical trials for every single alleged abuser in its system, it would not move us meaningfully closer to the public's compelling interest in knowing who the predators are and what they have done.

The sad irony here is that the Bishops persistently insert themselves into the secular legal sphere to ensure that there are no criminal trials and no hope of compensation for the harm done by its clergy and its cover up. Here in New York, the hierarchy has spent millions of its parishioners' donations lobbying against every proposed extension and elimination of the childhood sexual abuse SOLs. It is the single most effective and determined interest group keeping the identities of predators secret and victims out of court.

Not that there hasn't been a comprehensive and concerted effort to reform the SOLs. Since the massive cover-up of the Church's secret handling of childhood sexual abuse by its priests first broke in 2002, thousands of victims here in New York and across the U.S. - and millions who are rightfully and sufficiently outraged - have demanded accountability. Bills have been introduced in both the Assembly and Senate that would create a window of opportunity of one year for victims to file claims and pursue justice in court against those who caused their abuse, even if their statutes of limitations expired already. The Assembly has passed these bills repeatedly while the Senate routinely blocked them. Last year's version finally made it into a Senate subcommittee when now Attorney General Eric Schneiderman brought it forward and voted for it. Unfortunately, the Bishops' pressure persuaded enough other committee members to vote against the victims and the legislation did not survive.

So, in the end, the Kavanagh case is a tragic story, not just for his victim but for all of New York. Yes, the former Monsignor has been de-frocked. But because of arbitrary SOLs and a private Church tribunal, our children are no safer than when he wore the cloth.