Reviews | Camden Diocese settlement shows justice is coming in clergy sex abuse cases
In April, a Catholic diocese in suburban Philadelphia in southern New Jersey agreed to pay nearly $88 million to settle the claims of several hundred people, many of them now elderly, who say they were abused. in their childhood. For many of the approximately 300 plaintiffs in the Diocese of Camden, that will mean payouts in the range of $300,000, with the possibility of additional amounts stemming from separate lawsuits against insurance companies, parishes and schools.
The Camden settlement was one of the largest in the country, larger even than one in Boston, where the first revelations surfaced 20 years ago of the church’s systematic involvement in covering up sexual abuse of the clergy. It’s also partly the legacy of a 2018 grand jury report in Pennsylvania that documented allegations against more than 300 priests accused of abusing more than 1,000 children over decades.
The effect of this report was to defeat powerful interests, including the Catholic Church, private schools and insurance companies, which had successfully lobbied state legislatures to thwart restitution and accountability by preventing cases of sexual abuse against minors that date back decades. In particular, they blocked the introduction of so-called look-back windows that would allow suits to be brought for a specified period long after statutes of limitations had expired – a key reform given that many victims of child abuse put years of coping with the traumas they have suffered. This obstructive dam was broken after the Pennsylvania report, including through legislation enacted in New York, New Jersey and more than a dozen other states.
The easing of statutes of limitations has led to dozens of bankruptcy filings by dioceses as well as a tsunami of lawsuits by victims. The downside is the upheaval of the Catholic Church, an institution that remains a touchstone for millions of Americans. The upside is, if not a sense of closure, then at least an acknowledgment of the damage done and the trauma inflicted in American communities. Prayers for the victims were insufficient; they deserved, and in many cases have now received, legal redress for their pain and grievances.
This story is not over and should not be. Last year, Pope Francis ordered changes to the church’s own penal code to allow clerics who exploit power imbalances to abuse not only children but also adults to be expelled from the priesthood. However, the Vatican has continued to resist uniform reporting of child abuse to civil authorities, which it says could put clergy in some countries at risk. In the United States and abroad, major new reports have continued to document the scale and scope of abuse over the decades. This important work must continue.