Breaking ranks with his peers, a Roman Catholic bishop called yesterday for state legislatures to temporarily remove the time limits that have prevented many victims of sex abuse from suing the church.
In making that extraordinary appeal, Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit also unburdened himself of a secret. As a teenager 60 years ago, he said, he was “inappropriately touched” by a priest.
Gumbleton, 75, is the first U.S. bishop to disclose that he was a victim of clergy sexual abuse. He is also the first to endorse proposals in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and other states to follow California's example and open a one-year window for victims to file lawsuits over sexual abuse, no matter how long ago it took place.
“I don’t want to exaggerate that I was terribly damaged. It was not the kind of sexual abuse that many of the victims experience,” Gumbleton said in a telephone interview. But, he said, he knows why sex abuse victims often cannot file lawsuits within the period allowed by the statute of limitations, which in many states is two to five years after the alleged crime.
“They are intimidated, embarrassed, and they just bury it. I understand that,” he said. “I never told my parents... I never told anybody.”
California lawsuits could top $1 billion
Gumbleton is stepping into the middle of a legislative battle between victims’ groups and lobbyists for the Roman Catholic Church and other religious organizations. It began in 2002, when the California legislature voted to lift the state's statute of limitations on sex abuse lawsuits for one year, from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2003. During that period, victims filed more than 800 suits against California dioceses. Most are still in mediation, with a cost that attorneys on both sides have said could top $1 billion — about what the sex abuse scandal has cost all other U.S. Catholic dioceses in the country combined.
Last month, a federal judge in California upheld the constitutionality of the one-year window, giving impetus to similar legislative proposals in other states.
Gumbleton said he plans to speak today at a news conference outside the Ohio Statehouse. Ohio’s State Senate voted unanimously in March for a bill that would open a one-year window there, and it is likely to come to a vote in the House by spring, according to its sponsor, state Sen. Robert F. Spada, R-Ohio.
Spada, a Roman Catholic, said the state’s Catholic hierarchy has vigorously opposed the measure. “They have done the most they could ever do” to defeat it, he said.
Mark Chopko, general counsel to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the bishops nationally have not taken a stand on the issue, but that Catholic lobbyists at the state level have strongly opposed one-year windows.
What happened to Gumbleton and other victims is “terrible, just terrible,” Chopko said. “But is the just thing basically to make the patrimony or the treasury of the church vulnerable? We do want to assist victims, and encourage healing, and even do some kinds of financial assistance if that’s warranted. But the idea that ‘let’s all go to the mattresses here and fight about this in the law courts’ — we think that’s unjust to everybody.”
Gumbleton, who was appointed as a bishop 38 years ago by Pope Paul VI, is a pacifist with a reputation as one of the most liberal U.S. prelates on economic and social issues. During a meeting of the national bishops conference in Washington a few years ago, he said, he came close to mentioning his own experience with sexual abuse. “But then the conversation somehow changed,” he said.
Gumbleton first disclosed his abuse in the remarks he prepared for Wednesday’s news conference, saying he had been “exploited as a teenager through inappropriate touching by a priest.” Reached Tuesday night at his hotel in Columbus, Ohio, he said the incidents took place in 1945, when he was in the ninth grade at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit.
“As often happens in these cases,” he said, a priest used to invite him and one other boy to a weekend cabin. “At some point, he would start wrestling with one of us. Then he would be putting his hands into your pants,” the bishop said.
Gumbleton declined to name the priest, who he said has been dead for more than a decade. “I don't have any animosity for him. I hope he’s praying for me in heaven,” he said.
Though he is a bishop in Michigan, Gumbleton said he sees nothing wrong with speaking in Ohio on what he believes is “a national issue.”
“It could cost the church some money, but it also could bring a great deal of healing to a lot of victims,” he said. “I’ve been saying for 10 years that these cases should be handled with pastoral sensitivity, not just in an adversarial legal way. I’ve also felt strongly that bishops should be talking to these victims, and so often they haven't been.”