Cardinal Timothy Dolan Proves Once Again the Church Will Never Reform Itself without the Law and Civil Society Behind It


New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has announced that the Child Victims Act, for which we have been fighting for 15 years, will pass this year with his full support. With both houses controlled by Democrats, the leadership of Sen. Brad Hoylman, now Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, he is surely correct. The barrier to passage until now has been Republican lawmakers kneeling to the Catholic bishops and in particular New York City Archdiocese’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan. The latter is not going down, though he is decidedly going down on this issue, without a final whining tour about justice for child sex abuse victims.

Dolan’s latest volley was an op-ed in the New York Daily News that is filled with misstatements and ugly implications.  He tries two “Hail Mary” passes. First, he says that the governor’s bill will not treat public schools the same as private institutions. This is simply not true, but even if it were, there is no question the intent is to put private and public entities on the same footing and any additional language Dolan wants to further nail home this point can be easily added. The Democratic leadership in New York is 100% on board in wanting to protect children from sex abuse in every arena. Therefore, at least from Dolan’s rhetoric, he should be on board with the CVA. Not so fast.

At the end of the op-ed, he sneaks in Hail Mary pass number two, stating: “A balanced bill would allow for compensation programs and mediation over litigation.…” Whoa! The Child Victims Act has never been about “mediation over litigation.” It’s always been about society’s need to empower victims by handing them the tools of civil litigation to force into the public square the true facts of abuse and cover up. Litigation is absolutely critically essential (I can’t emphasize this enough) to end the scourge of child sex abuse and its coverup. It is the only tool we can give the victims that unearths the secrets that hide child predators’ identities and the pernicious behavior of powerful men (and women) letting pedophiles get away with destroying children for the “greater good” of the institution and its welfare.

Dolan in particular fears litigation, because he is sitting on the largest set of secret archives in the United States not yet publicly disclosed. Why? Because of the embarrassingly short statutes of limitations in New York that have let the New York bishops avoid discovery by their victims. Let’s not forget New York is in the category of Alabama and Mississippi on these issues. Dolan wants discovery requests to land at the Archdiocese’s doorstep about as much as a vampire eagerly awaits a garlic delivery from FedEx. He and other bishops in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania have set up voluntary compensation funds because they are terrified of the further release of the truth from their files. They want to avoid as much litigation as possible in the face of the unstoppable march forward of victims’ access to justice.

Dolan’s frantic fear proves the necessity of the Child Victims Act to change the Church’s behavior for the better. This institution cannot reform on its own, and children, their families, and the rest of us are paying for their failures until access to justice is real.

I have the honor to have been asked by the venerated debating society, the Oxford Union, to debate the following statement: “The Catholic Church will never repay its sins.” The debate will be held on February 28 at Oxford University. Some may be surprised that I am taking the “negative” position on this statement. It’s not that I will be representing the Church. We all know that is not going to happen. Rather, I firmly believe that the Catholic Church will repay its sins for child sex abuse, because the law and civil society will force it to.

Can Dolan not hear the hoofbeats of decency, goodness, and civil society behind him? This week saw the publication of the “Out of the Shadows” report, which ranks and benchmarks 40 countries on how they are handling child sex abuse. It is a remarkable, large step toward ending child sex abuse in that it holds countries to account for their policies. This study was the result of pioneering work by The Economist Intelligence Unit, the Oak Foundation, and the Carlson Family Foundation. The world is joining hands to end this scourge through better laws and policies; tolerance of abuse is no longer acceptable. That is the future.

If Dolan or anyone in the Church believes that they can continue to coopt the world into giving them latitude to keep their secrets, they need to wake up to 2019. Clergy sex abuse is now sandwiched in between abuse in sports, the family, the schools, and everywhere else. This is a worldwide problem. It’s not just the Church, which means that the time has come for Dolan to stop lobbying against all the victims and to start embracing the right thing to do: giving victims access to justice and respecting the legal system. The answer to Dolan’s “mediation over litigation” volley is a resounding, “Absolutely not.” My free advice: start preparing for the ramifications of truth and justice.

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