Volume XXI

Cardinal Sins: How the Catholic Church Sexual Abuse Crisis Changed Private Law

by Mayo Moran

For several decades now, the unfolding of the Catholic Church sexual abuse crisis has been front-page news. It has wreaked havoc on hundreds of thousands of lives, cost the Church billions of dollars, and done irreparable harm to a once-revered institution. Along the way, it has also helped to transform the all- important private law of responsibility. When the crisis began to break in the early 1980s, the few survivors who sought legal redress faced a daunting array of obstacles. Limitations periods alone had the effect of barring almost all child sexual abuse claims. Immunities also helped to shield the Church. Private law itself was generally hostile to institutional liability, particularly where the harm resulted from the criminal act of an individual. All of that has changed.

Among the catalysts for change within private law, the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis looms large. The scale of the crisis and the universal nature of the Church were certainly both important factors, but so too was the Church’s response. From the initial impulse to cover up instances of abuse to choices made in the legal and political arenas, it appeared willing to do almost anything to protect itself. Yet the Church had traditionally benefited from special treatment precisely on the ground that it was not an ordinary, self-interested legal actor. The tension between the Church’s mission and its approach to covering up abuse began to attract notice. Courts and legislators were prompted to act.

The ongoing litigation did not reflect well on the Church as it continued to aggressively defend itself in court. The troubling continuity between how the Church treated initial allegations of abuse and how it handled the legal claims of survivors suggested an ethos that placed the preservation of the institution above the interests of the child. In this context, a broader idea of institutional liability started to seem important and even necessary. Changes in liability rules followed, and the very idea of responsibility began to shift. Ironically, the Church’s determination to protect itself at any cost brought about the very result it most feared. In the process, it also helped to work a dramatic transformation of private law.

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