Secrets in the Vatican, Sunshine Here in the US

Crowds gather in St. Peter's Square to wait for the election of a new pope by the cardinals in conclave in the Sistine Chapel
Crowds gather in St. Peter's Square to wait for the election of a new pope by the cardinals in conclave in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, Wednesday, March 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

When the Roman Catholic Cardinals gathered for their secret Vatican conclave to choose Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina as the new pope, it was impossible not to be reminded of the global sex abuse scandal that has scandalized the church over the past decade. Secrets have long kept child predators in the priesthood in business, and the current process of selecting the spiritual leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics underscores the inherent lack of transparency in the institution.

But at the very same time as the cardinals sat clandestinely in Rome worrying about leaks, survivors of childhood sex abuse and visionary legislators across the country like Marge Markey have been demanding bright sunshine here in the United States.

For the fifth consecutive year, Markey, the Assemblywoman from Queens, NY has introduced the Child Victims Act, a bill that would eliminate the arbitrary civil and criminal statutes of limitation for child sex abuse and offer survivors a one-year window to file suit even if their SOLs have expired. Earlier versions of the bill have passed four times in the General Assembly, but each time it has been blocked by the Senate, seemingly in deference to the Church.

To be sure, American bishops continue to fight to keep their secrets by handsomely paying millions to lobbyists to block child sex abuse SOL reform and lawyers to institute delaying tactics in bankruptcies like the one pending in Milwaukee and other more ordinary lawsuits.

The logic of the bishops' opposition is obvious: windows have forced them to divulge immoral and godless behavior they never expected to see the light of day. Cardinal Mahony of the Los Angeles Archdiocese has been writhing in public for weeks with the release of 12,000 pages of documents from its secret archives as part of the settlement of 550 cases there, all of which were filed only because of the 2003 window. Those pages revealed an impenetrable callousness, stone-cold arrogance, and a system incapable of checking the hard ambition of an up-and-coming American Cardinal.

Interestingly, in New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan -- one of the candidates cited as a potential successor to Pope Benedict -- sits on the largest secret archive in the country, yet to be dented by survivors' suits because he has successfully lobbied Albany to block SOL reform. Furthermore, before coming to New York, he himself testified publicly against window legislation in Wisconsin and is rumored to have paid off pedophile priests.

The logic of eliminating SOLs is obvious: let victims go to court and if they have the evidence, they might win. But more importantly, the public will learn who is abusing children and putting them in situations of danger. When the SOLs are too short, as they are in many states, that truth is locked away, and the pedophiles win.

The vibrant movement for SOL reform across the country is invested in one thing: opening that lock and getting the truth about child sex abuse to the public, whether it is through the criminal justice or civil law systems. Survivors want to hold their torturers and the callous institutions that made their suffering possible publicly accountable, while desperately wanting to prevent even one more child from suffering as they did.

The movement began in earnest with the California window of 2003, which permitted victims whose SOLs had expired to file lawsuits against their perpetrators and any institutions that negligently supervised and retained child predators. Since then, windows have been opened in Delaware, Hawaii, and Guam. Over the last decade, many states, including Florida, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut, either extended their SOLs or eliminated them altogether.

This year, there is an abundance of pending bills. Besides the Markey legislation in New York, SOL reform is being pushed in Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and even California, where there is hope for the elimination of this artificial deadline forever. Arkansas just eliminated its criminal SOL several in a mere one week!

When the CVA and similar SOL bills pass -- and they must -- the many survivors across the country will be able to pursue justice against predators employed by universities, schools, and organizations, not to mention "loving" predators like parents, grandparents, babysitters, and teachers, as well as clergy. No one will get an automatic victory -- just their day in the sunshine of public court proceedings.

Surely the cardinals who sat in their covert conclave this week at least dimly perceive the current reality. The question now is, are they capable of doing what they need to do to redeem themselves by letting that sunshine stream in?

Marci A. Hamilton is professor of law at Cardozo Law School/Yeshiva University in New York and author of Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children. More information about statutes of limitations can be obtained on her website.