Topic: Professions and Institutions

Bishop Thomas Gumbleton
(January 2006)

The Catholic Church child abuse scandal was one of the most startling and far-reaching ethics outrages in decades, and its full extent has yet to be determined. Untold numbers of priests used their position of trust to abuse and molest thousands of young boys, while enabling bishops moved them to from parish to parish, exposing new victims to their attacks. The Church has paid millions in damages and will be paying millions more; it has also condemned its disgraceful efforts to protect its reputation rather than the young targets of sexual predators in Catholic collars. But for all that, the Church is still an organization in a defense mode, and is aggressively lobbying state legislatures in opposition to efforts to lift statutes of limitation that are currently preventing older victims of priestly molestation from seeking damages.

Now the victims have a powerful and unlikely ally: Detroit Catholic Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, who stunned his church by admitting that he had been a teenage victim of sexual abuse years ago, and urged lawmakers to change the laws, potentially exposing the Catholic Church to more lawsuits and more damages.

“I speak out of my own experience of being exploited as a teenager through inappropriate touching by a priest,” Gumbleton said in a statement distributed at a news conference on behalf of abuse victims in Ohio. “I understand why victims of sexual abuse need this new window of opportunityÂ…I know how difficult it is for me to speak about what happened.”

With that courageous admission, Gumbleton became the first U.S. Catholic bishop to acknowledge experiencing sexual abuse at the hands of a priest. He sided with his fellow victims instead of his employers, the Catholic Church, a choice that would have prevented countless molestations if it had been made by other bishops who had to face the reality of sexual predators under their authority, and who chose to protect rather than expose them.

“I understand why victims of sexual abuse need this new window of opportunity” to seek restitution from the Church, Gumbleton said at the news conference. “I know how difficult it is for me to speak about what happened.”

It should be emphasized that there are very good reasons for statutes of limitations. Memories fade and evidence disappears, and the chances of injustice in court increase dramatically with the passage of time. The Catholic Church has strong arguments against making special exceptions to the time limitations in cases of past child abuse by priests, and they may prevail on their merits. Still, Bishop Gumbleton has bravely taken a position that puts him in opposition to his church, and revealed a long-held secret linked to private and personal pain in order to provide assistance to the very group of victims his church failed.

Tragically, he is just one Catholic Bishop coming forward to do the right thing, long after the Church desperately needed dozens like him, and found none.

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