Put Out into the Deep

Making Democracy Work

It has been a long time since I read the Declaration of Independence, but in preparation for this July 4th weekend, I printed it off the Internet. You may recall in the first paragraph, “When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve political bonds. . .”

Then, in the second paragraph, the more familiar, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

These words are recognizable to all of us; however, what follows is not so familiar. There is a list of grievances directed to the King of Great Britain, as the Declaration states. They are the very grievances that prompted the colonial people to declare their independence from Britain, and among the grievances listed were imposing taxes on us without our consent and suspending our own legislatures. Most interesting to me were the laws for naturalization of foreigners and refusing passage to others wishing to migrate to the colonies. These problems seem to be with us today. It certainly was a varied list of grievances that people had with its governance by Great Britain.

Today in our own country, after a contentious Presidential election, we find ourselves in a difficult set of circumstances. In some ways, the two-party system has changed in that there are no longer Democrats and Republicans. Rather, we have the party in power and the opposition. Collaboration between the parties is no longer the preferred method of operation. Stonewalling and stopping the project of one or another is the method being employed today. It is certainly sad that the quality of our democracy is somewhat strained. And it seems that many citizens do not feel empowered to influence the course of events in their own country. In some way, separation from government has ensued since people hoping for change do not see any positive changes happening.

The lack of confidence in our government today may only be a symptom of the general lack of confidence in any kind of authority. Our independent American spirit somehow is directed against those who exercise authority over us. Church authority is no exception to the ill feelings felt by many faithful. This occurs most often when unpopular decisions are made or when people do not feel free to voice their own opinions. However, we must look at the individual situations and recognize that when all is said and done, all authority comes from God and we must respect the fact that there are certain rules of engagement in a democracy and also in our Church.

Just last week, I announced the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program (IRCP) being offered to victims of sexual abuse. This program is a sincere effort on the part of the Diocese in Brooklyn and Queens to reconcile claims of abuse perpetrated by members of the clergy, be they priests or deacons.

We saw the New York State legislature adjourn for this year’s session without passing one of several bills that purported to be able to protect children from sexual abuse. While in effect the legislation mainly opened up a window for old abuse cases and somewhat lengthened the time people have to bring a case forward, it mostly concentrated on the private sector, especially the Roman Catholic Church. Although lip service was given to the ability to sue public entities, legal opinions about the proposed legislation had many doubts that this could happen without a specific relaxation of the 90-day notice of claim necessary to sue a public entity.

The statute of limitations is a long-held legal principle that ensures fundamental fairness by placing reasonable time limits in which to bring civil lawsuits. Over time, memories fade and interested parties pass away. The ability of any person or institution to defend against old accusations is compromised and fundamental fairness is undermined.

As a result of litigation related to the sexual abuse of minors, more than 10 states have applied for bankruptcy. The Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware, is at least one case in which bankruptcy was directly related to lifting the statute of limitations. In several states where this “look back” provision is in place, already seven dioceses have filed for bankruptcy. In the State of New York the impetus for this legislation seems to mirror the movement spurred on by trial attorneys and some victims’ groups to punish the Church for its historical inadequacies.

There are, however, some provisions in these bills that do merit consideration, such as extending the statute of limitations prospectively or from the present time forward from 18 to 23 years of age when the five-year statute of limitations begins to toll, giving survivors an additional five years to bring a lawsuit. The inclusion of public school students is especially important, since studies have shown that more abuse has occurred in the public sector than in the private sector.

We must remember that the Church is not any one individual bishop, priest, deacon or layperson, but it is all of us together and any punishment leveled at the Church affects all of us. If this look-back legislation comes to fruition in the future, the ability of the Church to subsidize its good works and services will be jeopardized.

We need to rethink our civic responsibility and intervention with our legislators. Unfortunately, in the State of New York, all legislators seem to be in lock-step with their own parties. No one seems to be able to buck the tide and exercise their own individual opinions on legislation. Legislation is proposed and there are few if any hearings, whereas on the federal level and in other states specific legislation always gets an airing so as to try and understand the various issues within that legislation. Democracy in our own State of New York has taken several blows in the past. Unless there are changes, we will be in a state where most people cannot express their opinions with any hope of influencing legislators..

Any effort to correct past faults is an effort in “putting out into the deep” since it was largely unknown when past abuses had occurred.   Unfortunately, at the height of the sexual abuse crisis, careless reports of mishandling these cases was the norm. I must assure you that this certainly is not the case here in the Diocese of Brooklyn. Please, as responsible citizens, make your mind known to your elected officials.

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