What Sort of Justice is Possible?

Few forms of injustice incite our sense of outrage more than the abuses of power. Power can often have a corrupting influence and unchecked power provides predators opportunities to hurt the weak. And when evil occurs under these conditions, right-thinking people call out for equity and demand justice.

In early 2002 the Boston Globe published a series of articles on Catholic clergy and sexual abuse. The problems of pederasty have been known for millennia, within and outside of the Church’s structure. However, it was only in the 1980s that the media turned its attention to high-profile stories of clergy and sexual abuse. In the 1990s, following more highly publicized crimes in the United States, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops began to take notice. In the courts and in practice, the problem was usually treated as an aberration with victims agreeing to a settlement with clauses that prevented disclosure and publicity. It was an expense strategy that addressed the outcome, but not the underlying cause: priests who sexually abused minors. The Boston Globe articles addressed not only a convicted priest, John Geoghan, but also the way in which the Archdiocese handled the situation. Geoghan’s behavior was well known to church officials, who dealt with complaints by reassigning the predator. In essence, Geoghan was given more opportunities to abuse.

Geoghan’s conviction, coupled with problems with other priests involved in sexual abuse, led to investigation by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office and the release of internal church documents. More and more adults who were abused as children came forward, and through the efforts of a lay group, victims met victims. The size and scope of the abuse was staggering. Many victims sued the church, which responded in adversarial fashion. This led to more attention and eventually the replacement of Boston’s Bishop Law. The incoming Bishop O’Malley changed tactics and sought a settlement. The total, $85 million, brought one form of closure with the arbitration was mostly complete by 2003.

Jennifer M. Balboni’s Clergy Sexual Abuse Litigation: Survivors Seeking Justice is an examination of this case from the perspective of the victims. She interviewed sexual abuse survivors from the Boston case, hearing their voices about the crimes that had been committed and their desires for justice. Balboni is a professor of criminal justice, and her primary questions are straightforward: why did the victims wait so long to come forward and what did they seek from the litigation? She provides answers to both, but the answers lead to more questions. It is a well-written and fascinating book.

The experiences of the victims make the nature of the abuse chillingly clear. They also greatly explain the multitude of ways that the clergy, respected and trusted, were able to abuse their position and keep their victims silent. The victims suffered and had, literally, no place to turn. Their families were little or no comfort and the Church was consistently unhelpful. It is for good reason that so many of the survivors Balboni interviewed have faced challenges with addiction, faith and trust. Balboni’s explication of the criminal aspect of the case is professional, sympathetic, and very sad. My heart goes out to the victims. They deserved much, much better.

The other part of the equation – justice – is more problematic. Emotions are of less help as the very concept of justice is elusive. With time and evidence curtailing opportunities for criminal prosecution, the victims had to turn to civil litigation to achieve their “justice.” Balboni’s research highlighted that their motivation came from a complicated mixture of forces. They sought to turn their shame and emotion to use in order to become survivors, not just victims. The wanted the litigation to help establish truth, to make their voices heard, to empower them. The victims followed recognizable paths to litigation, too, gaining broader contextual understanding of what happened to them and others, and what they could do about it.

The end point of civil litigation is the exchange of money to right a wrong and provide equity. For these sexual abuse victims, the successful resolution of their suit required much more than dollar settlement. Unfortunately, the structure of judicial system works against that goal. Truth remained elusive and closure, in the form of a check, did not balance the scales. Justice, in other words, was not very well served for these litigants.

Balboni’s book makes a highly nuanced understanding of this complex process possible, something that is missing from many media accounts. She writes very well with a balanced tone that still makes her underlying morality clear. She is interested in justice. I only wish that I could believe that the justice system had the same concerns. One of the most troubling aspects of reading her book is that it opened my eyes to the yawning chasm between justice sought and justice delivered.

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