Years of Litigation

A 12-year-old Catholic girl goes to confession at her parish church, and tells the priest that she is being fondled by an adult man in the parish. The priest does not report this to anyone. Eventually, it comes to light, but the criminal investigation ends abruptly when the alleged offender dies of a sudden heart attack. The girl’s parents are upset that the priest did nothing to stop the abuse. They sue the priest and the diocese.

That was in 2009. The lawsuit is still going on.

(Skip this paragraph if you’re not interested in the legal details.) The priest claimed that he did not have to report the allegations because they were made during confession, and thus protected by the long-standing tradition that confessions are “sacred communications” that are exempt from the law. For the same reason, he refused to testify in the lawsuit. The trial court denied the diocese’s motion to prevent the priest from testifying; the diocese appealed, and the appeals court agreed with the diocese that the girl’s statements were a confession made within the sacrament of reconciliation, so confidential. The parents appealed to the state Supreme Court, which ruled against the diocese, ruling that the privilege belongs to the person making the confession, not to the priest hearing it. The Supreme Court remanded the case to the trial court to determine whether the priest was a mandatory reporter. The trial court ruled that he was; the diocese appealed, and the appellate court determined recently that he was not.

The alleged abuse occurred in 2008. The lawsuit has been going on for seven years, now entering its second run through the appellate system, without a conclusion. This case illustrates the futility of relying on litigation to resolve some problems. I can’t help wondering what might have happened had this case gone to mediation. As preparation for Christian mediation, each party is encouraged to examine their hearts for any way in which they have contributed to the conflict, and to prepare to confess that to the other party. Is it possible that this priest, who has refused to admit anything in the lawsuit, might agree, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that he could have done more to help this girl? In an environment of gracious love, out of the harsh public eye, might he concede that he did not act in her best interests? And might she and her family, being reminded of the forgiveness they have in Christ, forgive him? These outcomes are possible in Christian mediation; they’re not possible in litigation.

Even now, it’s not too late. Maybe by now the priest would actually like to acknowledge that he wishes he’d handled it differently; maybe the girl – now an adult — wants to tell him she doesn’t blame him. Litigation all but prevents that, but mediation makes it at least possible.