USCCB Day One: 'It's the Devil, stupid!'

by John L. Allen Jr.

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Roughly a month ahead of this week's discussion among American bishops about the causes and context of the sexual abuse crisis, at least one prelate pointed to a force unlikely to be cited in an analysis prepared by Fordham University and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice: the Devil.

“We must recognize that the church is under attack, and the law is being used as an instrument,” Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Chicago said in an Oct. 15 homily at a “red Mass” for members of the legal profession in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Paprocki did not mince words about who’s ultimately to blame: “We must use our religious discernment to recognize that the principal force behind these attacks is none other than the devil,” he said.

Paprocki, who holds degrees in both civil and canon law, is a candidate to become the chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance. His opposition for the post comes from Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis.

In his Oct. 15 homily, Paprocki argued that massive cash settlements which, according to some estimates, have cost the U.S. church $2 billion, don’t punish the clergy involved in misconduct, but rather the average parishioner or donor.

Paprocki is not the only American bishop speaking out against legal pressures on the church. Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre recently spoke to another “red Mass” in Suffolk County, using the occasion to oppose legislation in the State Assembly that would extend the civil and criminal statutes of limitations for the sexual abuse of minors. In his homily, Murphy asked whether such lawsuits are intended “to profit lawyers more than victims.”

Paprocki gave a developed version of that argument.

“While the sexual abuse of minors is a sin that must be addressed by the church and a crime that must be punished by the criminal justice system, I would suggest that the current approach of awarding large monetary damages to victims is not only contrary to the purposes of tort liability theory, but also place an excessive burden on the free exercise of religion for Catholics in the United States,” Paprocki said.

“Monetary damages taken from a not-for-profit entity do not punish the wrongdoers, but only serve to constrain the scope of the entity’s charitable, religious and educational activities,” Paprocki said.

In that context, Paprocki called for recovery of the legal concept of “charitable immunity,” which protect not-for-profit organizations against lawsuits seeking large monetary damages. Such immunity was once recognized in American civil law, Paprocki said, but was eroded in the mid-20th century by medical malpractice litigation.

By extending virtually uncapped litigation to other not-for-profit institutions, Paprocki argued, church-run charitable and educational enterprises are today “threatened with elimination.” He cited a recent $12 million settlement against Catholic social services in Chicago which, he claimed, has made it impossible for the church’s foster care program to get insurance.

Moreover, Paprocki argued, plaintiffs’ attorneys and some civil courts have treated parish property as if it belongs to the diocese, failing to respect distinctions made in the church’s Code of Canon Law that prevent diocesan bishops from “indiscriminately seizing parish assets for diocesan purposes.” In that climate, Paprocki said, “parishioners are rightly concerned about the ultimate destination of their donations.”

Paprocki distinguished three phases in the understanding of the sexual abuse of minors:

•tPrior to 1960, it was understood largely as a moral failure, the proper response to which was “penance, absolution and a firm purpose of amendment”;
•tFrom 1960 to 1990, it was understood as a disorder, with therapy being the prescribed remedy;
•tAfter 1990, the approach has been litigious, focusing on monetary settlements.

Paprocki insisted that the church's payouts from sex abuse-related lawsuits over the last five years amount to an infringement of its religious freedom.

“As a result of this highly litigious culture fostered under the color of law, an undue burden has been placed on our free exercise of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution,” he said. “This burden needs to be lifted.”

“While a full return to the complete charitable immunity of the past is neither likely nor desirable, the civil law of our land needs to reflect a more rational and reasonable balance between equitable remuneration … and protecting the charitable contributions that have been given in trust to be used for charitable and religious purposes.”

In the last section of his homily, Paprocki cited historical examples of the use of civil law to inflict wounds on the church, from ancient Rome through England in the era of Henry VIII. Again today, Paprocki asserted, the civil law is being manipulated to “undermine the charitable works and religious freedom of the church.”

“This attack is particularly directed against bishops and priests, since the most effective way to scatter the flock is to attack the shepherd,” he said.

At a spiritual level, Paprocki argued, these attacks should be seen as literally demonic.

“This may seem like a rather antiquated and unsophisticated idea to say to a highly educated and intellectual group of people such as yourselves,” Paprocki said. To bolster his argument, Paprocki cited a November 1972 comment from the late Pope Paul VI: “What are the greatest needs of the church today? Do not think that out answer is simplistic or superstitious and unreal: one of our greatest needs today is the defense from that evil that we call the devil.”

Paprocki thus called upon American Catholics to draw upon the spiritual resources of the church, including the sacraments and the intercession of the saints, in order to “carry the cross in this litigious culture.”

Aftershocks of litigation related to the sex abuse crisis are still being felt. A federal appeals court in Philadelphia, for example, last week barred a group of alleged victims from suing the Catholic church under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), that would have sidestepped statutes of limitations on abuse cases.

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