“Nibbling on the past”

The church in the U.S. will not come to rest. A bishop's resignation, the suspension of a beatification and an impending flood of lawsuits are causing a stir. What are the backgrounds?

Interviewer: 15 U.S. states have abolished previously short time limits for abuse lawsuits in court. What should the Catholic Church in the U.S. expect to face now?

Klaus Prompers (journalist and USA expert): Strictly speaking, they have abolished the statute of limitations, following the demands of many victims. There are lawyers there who are now very aggressively courting clients who feel they have been sexually abused. This is done, for example, through television ads, through radio ads, and also through ads in newspapers. There is, says a New York lawyer who is directly across the street from the St. Patrick's Cathedral residing on Fifth Avenue, meanwhile a mountain of 5000 gathered, from various states, who feel they have been sexually abused. From California to New York. That could very easily lead to lawsuits with damage amounts of several of billions of U.S. dollars. As a rule, of course, such lawsuits are very inflated. Afterwards, some settlement will come out, but still, for one or the other diocese, that would certainly mean that they could go bankrupt over it.

Interviewer: Is a similar flood of lawsuits now rolling out to other churches and similar institutions?

Prompers: That can't be ruled out if the statutes of limitations have been lifted. Of course, there was sexual abuse in other religions or in other institutions, such as orphanages and the like. Of course, if this sets a precedent, other victims of abuse could make the claim for financial compensation as well. Whether this is indulged in each individual case will have to be verified. This will certainly set in motion long and protracted proceedings, which will also bring one or the other small county, which may have operated an orphanage in the past, into severe financial difficulties.

Interviewer: A beatification was planned for shortly before Christmas – this has now been cancelled at short notice. It is about the very popular Archbishop Fulton John Sheen. At the request of some U.S. bishops, this beatification has been suspended. Who was this Archbishop Sheen and what are the reasons for the suspension??

Prompers: Sheen is a pioneer, so to speak, of radio and television in communicating the Catholic faith in the U.S. He had a regular radio show between 1930 and 1950 that translated as "the Catholic hour" and was very popular. From 1951, practically since the introduction of television, he has created a program over several years and himself also half-hourly "Life is worth living". In doing so, he has brought faith together with everyday life, winning two Emmys for it, i.e. high awards for television art. He also lived in New York for a time as an auxiliary bishop, and afterwards was also bishop for a short time in Rochester, in New York state. But later withdrew from it, because he continued to make his television stories. He lay buried for a long time in the crypt of the Diocese of New York City, in which St. Patrick's Cathedral.

It came now recently to a dispute between the diocese of Peoria in Illinois and New York, where the bones should ultimately be. In Peoria he was born and also later ordained to the priesthood. Diocese in Illinois has now prevailed in court to be allowed to transfer remains. That they have done in the meantime. In this case, too, one suspects that the beatification process has been held up. Whether there might have been sexual abuse or the covering up of sexual abuse in the background, during the time he was bishop of Rochester, must now be discussed.

Interviewer: What does it mean when such a popular and media-savvy figure in the U.S. Church as Archbishop Sheen is suddenly dragged into the abuse scandal??

Prompers: Currently not very much. He was a first catholic "rampant", if I may say so, one who came across well on television and radio. He has become a guiding figure for many televangelists who have followed him. Even Billy Graham considered him one of the pioneers in this whole genre. So that's unfortunate in that there's this shadow of a possible cover-up of abuse cases falling on him now. But it is perhaps justified to check whether there is really something to it, before it could be beatified and canonized.

Interviewer: And on Wednesday, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Buffalo Bishop Richard Malone. The latter has come under criticism for his handling of the investigation into abuse allegations. Has this resignation now at least let some steam out of the boiler?

Prompers: For the diocese I think so, where he was bishop until 2012. I can imagine that, because the most serious thing was the accusation against two priests that they had committed a crime against a seminarian. This was an open rumor. The bishop himself has always said that this is a very complex and complicated story, and that one cannot condemn it so easily. If he is now taken out of the firing line, if I may say so, and withdrawn from the public eye as a bishop – he is already 73 years old anyway – then this may calm local tempers. But it shows once again that the Catholic Church in the U.S., but certainly not only there, has a lot to gnaw on what has been tolerated and covered up in the past.

The interview was conducted by Uta Vorbrodt.

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