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U.S. should probe clergy abusers

A sex-abuse survivor joins protesters Wednesday to call

A sex-abuse survivor joins protesters Wednesday to call on the Archdiocese of New York, and the dioceses of Brooklyn and Rockville Centre to help survivors of clergy abuse in New York. Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images/DON EMMERT

I grew up attending St. Dominic Church in Oyster Bay, and beginning in 1969, at age 13, I was sexually abused by the Rev. Robert Huneke. He had befriended me and my family soon after arriving at the parish. My parents had no idea I was being abused. I was terrified, confused and paralyzed. I never told them of the abuse while it happened. He counted on my silence, as he did on the silence of the other children he abused.

I have been a survivor of clergy child sex abuse for nearly four decades, and an advocate for victims for 30 years. This summer marks an important anniversary for me: the first public disclosure of my abuse. Thirty years ago, I stood outside St. Patrick’s Church in Huntington after the 9 a.m. Mass. My father, brothers and I handed out copies of a letter to parishioners telling them I was abused by their parish priest, Huneke, and that I had told Bishop John McGann of the abuse nine years earlier. During those nine years, McGann moved the priest from parish to parish and school to school, giving him unfettered access to additional targets.

Our actions embarrassed the Diocese of Rockville Centre into removing my predator from active service as a priest. After he left the diocese, he had access to children as a school guidance counselor for more than 10 years.

Early in my advocacy, I focused on getting the church and its leaders to identify and remove sexual predators, to help the victims, and to alert families of the risks to children. But after many frustrating years, I came to believe the church had little to no interest or ability to deal with the sexual abuse by some of its priests.

I had erred in thinking the church considered the sexual abuse of children to be a moral issue. Instead, I learned that many church leaders viewed it as a risk-management issue. Once I understood that, everything the church did to protect priests, avoid victims, steer clear of the criminal justice system, and lobby for the continuation of archaic statute of limitations on child sex abuse made perfect sense. 

Today, some parts of the criminal justice system and certain state legislatures are finally paying attention to the behavior of the church in America. Nearly 20 state attorneys general are conducting grand jury investigations into the dioceses in their states. I expect the reports from those investigations will be horrifying.

The passage of the Child Victims Act in New York State is also a bright spot. The law, signed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo earlier this year, allows sex abuse victims to file lawsuits against their predators and their enablers by suspending the statute of limitations for a year to allow victims to seek justice.

The Diocese of Rockville Centre’s Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program also has provided some survivors with a small measure of justice, although some view it as a tool to sidestep larger civil settlements coming from the victims act — a law the diocese fought for years.

But none of these developments is nearly enough.

We need a national criminal justice strategy to identify and hold accountable the people who enabled the decadeslong, wholesale rape of children by Catholic clergy. Why? Because the states are limited in their jurisdiction to crimes in the state. Many bishops have operated across state lines, exchanging abusing priests and sharing the cover-up. The federal government is needed to attack the system of cover-up that states can attack only piecemeal. Other countries have figured this out. In Australia, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse published a stunning report exposing all kinds of criminal behavior. Its work led to the arrest and conviction of the most senior cleric in the Roman Catholic Church to be held accountable.

As I reflect on the 30 years since I first stood up to expose my abuse, the lack of action by our national criminal justice system is the most stunning and disappointing failure of all. It is time to truly investigate and expose the institutional blindness that continues to put America’s children at risk.

John F. Salveson is president of the Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse. He accepted a settlement from Diocese of Rockville Centre through its Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program.

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