Say it Ain’t So, Joe

Bertin Lefkovic, who has been on the outside of New Jersey politics looking in for almost two decades, likens Gov. Phil Murphy's current struggles to make a decision on what to do with the 2020 budget passed by the NJ Legislature to an episode of NBC's The West Wing.

At his best, man is the noblest of all animals;  

separated from law and justice he is the worst. 

-Aristotle 

In a Star-Ledger column this week on the subject of sex scandals and child abuse lawsuits in the Catholic Church, columnist Tom Moran interviewed His Eminence Cardinal Joseph Tobin.  

Cardinal Tobin, spiritual leader of the Newark Catholic Archdiocese, said this when asked if he would commit to opening the “sealed” settlement files of credibly accused priests:  

“My default mode is the optimum transparency, but I’d like to get some advice on that.” It was also revealed that the Cardinal “asks visitors to call him Joe.” 

So, let me begin by saying I’m all for transparency, optimum or otherwise, that I, too, prefer informality and good advice, and that I just happen to have a Catholic school education.  

And speaking of which, one take away I have from my study years is a healthy degree of skepticism.  

Given the scandal plagued history of the church, and especially the latest revelations of the Pennsylvania grand jury report on a half-century of sex abuse including child rape of thousands of children by hundreds of priests and its cover-up by clergy and church leaders, the very least expected at this point is “optimum transparency.” 

For me, the most illuminating part of the interview with the Cardinal, however, was the reveal that State Senator Joseph Vitale of Middlesex County has sponsored a bill in the New Jersey state legislature that would “remove the statute of limitations on civil suits” for these abuses, which is already done for criminal cases.  

It was pointed out that New Jersey “bans lawsuits more than two years after the damage of the abuse is discovered.”  

Senator Vitale’s legislation would eliminate limitations altogether, that is, if it wasn’t languishing in the State Senate. 

The Cardinal admitted, acknowledged, whatever (and a spokesman later clarified), that New Jersey dioceses have shelled out somewhere near $50 million to settle abuse cases, and that’s just in the last 10 years. Shocking? For sure!  

But, he failed to say what the additional costs are for lobbying legislators to stall and block bills like Senator Vitale’s, which would allow for upgraded safeguards and outright recourse for those who’ve been abused, regardless of when they filed their claims or at what age. Most cases are filed when those abused, when young, reach adulthood. 

According to published reports, there are nine states with no civil statutes of limitations for some claims including Illinois and Maine, which have zero civil statutes of limitations for child sexual abuse.  Unfortunately, New Jersey is not among the nine. Either is Pennsylvania.  

There is a desperate need for statute of limitation amendment. Senator Vitale is right. It’s time the rhetoric translates to reform. 

Scandals, actions taken or not, outright failure to lead, all result in losses for the church, both spiritual and financial. So does condoned and covered-up child abuse and the lack of redress and justice for it. Like elections, there are consequences. 

An opinion writer in the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote recently about revelations in Pennsylvania: “After all the investigations and findings in every Catholic diocese, it’s time the legislature concedes that it’s done too little for too long and move to right its wrongs…by anyone at any time.” 

New Jersey State Senator Vitale said it just as well:  “it is tragically past time that my colleagues …finally join with me in my legislation that will once and for all give survivors of child sex abuse and rape access to justice.” 

The Vatican weighed in recently citing the latest accusations as “criminally and morally reprehensible” and said the described abuse “robbed survivors of their dignity and their faith.”  

Amen. Go far and wide and even praise the Lord, but when all is said and done pass the appropriate and much needed legislation. 

*  *  * 

Some things you think will last forever understandably just don’t: like hard-core beliefs and trust in church leaders. 

As a conscripted altar boy in my youth, I was often assigned to the 6:00 a.m. daily Mass for a fearsome, and let me add, irascible parish pastor, a monsignor.  

He had a gruff side-altar manner but the faithful came to his service, nevertheless, and parents, mainly working class, blue-collar parishioners, including many World War II veterans and their wives, gladly paid full tuition at the attached grammar school to get  

40-50 plus uniform-wearing good little boys and girls jammed into each classroom.  

One morning the monsignor railed on and gave me a slap to the back of the head when, as he proclaimed, he ‘uncovered’ that I was taking swimming lessons at the Protestant YMCA.  

It should have been clear to me, even then, kind of like an epiphany at the St. Joseph altar, that there was hardly a future in that less than ecumenical line of thinking. 

I often wonder how the monsignor would feel today about women being priests, maybe even Cardinals, same sex marriage, LGBTQ and divorced parishioners or for that matter the Archdiocese losing its grip on their mission of Secondary Catholic school education.  

All that, let alone how he would feel about spending $50 million in abuse settlements in this state in ten short years. 

My Catholic high school closed during that decade. “Simple economics,” the Archdiocese would have you believe. To them, “it’s like the baby going out with the bath water” logic, I suppose.   

But, all the while drained funds supplied the former Newark Archbishop Myers (Ohio native) with a very tony New Jersey retirement compound and misguided funds were wasted on lawyers and lobbyists to keep things quiet. 

*  *  * 

I had the occasion to attend an 11 o’clock Mass one Sunday morning in Galway, Ireland, a deeply Catholic country, now with a jolted faithful (what with their own abuse scandals), and to my surprise the church was nearly empty.  

Afterwards, I asked the parish priest just why there were so few worshipers, considering it was a convenient time for the locals and travelers, alike.  

Here’s what he said: “The new Cathedrals, my son, are the Sports Stadiums. That’s where the people on Sundays now go to worship.”  

If, regrettably, that’s the case then Senator Vitale’s legislation that seeks access to justice for all the abused needs to put up on the scoreboard.  It’s long past time the Church got in the game. 

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