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Posted Wednesday Jan. 11, 2005 at 10:27 a.m. CST
Updated Wednesday Jan. 11, 2005 at 7:46 p.m. CST

Gumbleton reveals he was sexually abused by a priest,
supports Ohio 'look-back' bill

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Columbus, Ohio

Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit said publicly today that he was sexually abused by a priest more than 60 years ago while attending seminary.

Gumbleton, 75, an auxiliary bishop widely known as an advocate for the poor and for pacifist causes, made his claim at a news conference here in support of Senate Bill 17, pending legislation in Ohio that would open a one-year window for victims to file lawsuits over sexual abuse, even if the abuse took place decades before.

In coming forward, Gumbleton stands opposed to Ohio's bishops, who have fought passage of the bill. SB 17 passed the Ohio Senate unanimously last March but has since been stuck in the House judiciary committee.

Gumbleton, whose weekly homilies are published elsewhere on this Web site, is believed to be the first U.S. bishop to identify himself as a survivor of clerical sexual abuse. He said this is the first time in his life he has shared the story of his abuse with anyone. "I understand how hard it is for victims to speak up," said Gumbleton. That difficulty is part of the reason he supports SB 17.

The bill would allow civil cases for abuse allegations 20 years past the plaintiff's 18th birthday whereas current law places the limit at two years past the age of majority. SB 17 would strengthen mandatory reporting laws for bishops, priests, teachers and others who suspect child abuse.

The bill also provides for a one-year look-back period that would create a window where alleged victims could file suit for claims up to 35 years old. A similar law passed in California, saw a deluge of lawsuits filed against Catholic priests and dioceses.

The Ohio bishops have repeatedly said they support all provision of SB 17 with the exception of the look-back period.

Speaking for the Catholic Conference of Ohio, which represents Ohio's bishops, last November, Executive Director Timothy Luckhaupt told NCR that "This one-year look-back period does not do anything to protect kids."

In a statement faxed to NCR Jan. 11, the Ohio Catholic Conference reiterated the bishops' opposition to the look-back provision, calling it "retroactive legislation specifically prohibited by the Ohio constitution."

While expressing sadness to learn that Gumbleton was a victim of abuse when he was young, the conference statement said his support of SB17 is "his own personal opinion" and that Gumbleton did not speak for the bishops of Ohio.

"Healing is not achieved by lawsuits but by working with those who have suffered abuse, ministering to them pastorally and helping to meet their individual needs. This is what Ohio's dioceses and its bishops are doing and will continue to do," the conference statement said.

A statement from the Detroit archdiocese, Gumbleton's home, carried similar sentiments. Cardinal Adam Maida of Detroit said he was "especially saddened" by the news that Gumbleton "was apparently a victim himself," but that "the Detroit archdiocese was never made aware of this."

Msgr. Ricardo Bass, Maida's delegate for clergy matters, called Gumbleton's experience "regrettable, and no doubt, it frames his personal opinion on the matter." As for statutes of limitations, Bass said, such laws have "served our society well in protecting the rights of everyone."

There is no time limit on a person bringing a complaint to the archdiocese, Bass said. Following diocesan policy, he said, Gumbleton could receive counseling assistance as needed.

In an interview with NCR Jan. 11, Gumbleton said he was abused "two or three times" during 1945 and 1946 when he was a 9th and 10th grade seminarian in Detroit. The priest who abused him engaged in "wrestling matches" and then put his hand down Gumbleton's pants, the bishop said. "I knew it was strange, but at the time I was very na´ve and innocent. It wasn't until much later that the event registered," said Gumbleton.

The bishop declined to name the priest, saying he was long dead and citing a Latin phrase, nihil nisi bonum de mortuis, which he interpreted to mean he should say "nothing except good about the deceased."

Gumbleton says the man was probably in his 40s when the abuse occurred, but that he forgives him. He downplayed the abuse relative to the trauma other victims have suffered. It never got to the point where it maimed him beyond normal functioning, he said, but added that this was largely due to the fact that he didn't really understand what happened until later. At the news conference, the bishop said, "The more I think about it, the more I think how terrible it is."

Gumbleton said his main motivation in speaking now is to expose any clerical abusers who have not yet been identified so that no more children will be harmed. He also said that the U.S. bishops as a whole have failed to "act pastorally" in dealing with clerical abuse. "It's sad the church must be compelled through a court of law to do what it should be doing pastorally," he said.

Legislation similar to Ohio's has been passed in Illinois and introduced in Pennsylvania and New York. Last month, a federal judge upheld the constitutionality of California's look-back law.

Although he has held various administrative duties at the parish and diocesan levels in Detroit, Gumbleton said he was never party to covering up clerical sexual abuse or even had "inside" knowledge of such a cover up.

Gumbleton emphasized that he was speaking as an individual and did not represent the Catholic bishops nationally or any regional group of bishops.

Other speakers preceded Gumbleton in support of SB 17 including a priest from Iowa who claimed his brother suffered sexual abuse and Robert Scamardo, former general counsel for the Galveston-Houston archdiocese. Scamardo said he had the unique experience of having "fought" those claiming clerical abuse to his archdiocese as well as being a childhood abuse survivor himself.

Scamardo said that after a priest abused him he sought help from a church counselor who then abused him too. Scamardo said he understood how the current statute of limitations for civil cases can be "a very effective" tool for the bishops to avoid financial losses.

In another contrast with his fellow bishops, Gumbleton does not believe that the "zero tolerance" policy for child sexual abuse, adopted by the U.S. bishops as "The Dallas Charter", is necessarily applicable to all cases. He did specify, however, that he would only allow a priest to re-enter ministry if the circumstances were extraordinary and the priest was closely monitored.

Even so, the bishop laid wide blame at the feet of the U.S. bishops for their role in the abuse scandals and said bishops who knowingly allowed pedophiles to keep abusing should not hold power. "There's no grey area for bishops who move perpetrators from place to place," he said.

Gumbleton also said he supports criminal prosecution for bishops who aid abusers: "Anyone who committed a crime should be brought to account.

Bishop Gumbleton's statement to the Ohio House Judiciary Committee follows.


January 11, 2006

Ohio House of Representatives
Judiciary Committee

Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton, DD
Auxiliary Bishop
Archdiocese of Detroit
4860 15th Street
Detroit MI 48208

Chairman Willamowski and members of the House Judiciary Committee:

I am Thomas Gumbleton, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Detroit. I appreciate the opportunity to speak to you regarding Senate Bill 17.

From the outset I wish to make it very clear that I do not speak in any official capacity on behalf of the Archdiocese of Detroit, nor any regional nor national group of bishops. However, I come before you as a priest of the Catholic church for almost 50 years and a bishop for almost 38 years. I have had many years of pastoral and administrative experience at both the parish and diocesan levels.

I also speak from my experience of listening and attempting to be responsive to the tragic stories of victims of sexual abuse. Finally, I speak out of my own experience of being exploited as a teenager through inappropriate touching by a priest.

I know you have listened for hours to the grim stories of many victims and their family members of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy. I thank you for doing this. And, if I may, I extend a very sincere apology to the men and women in this room who were sexually assaulted by Catholic priests and other church leaders. I also apologize to the parents, spouses, siblings and other family members and friends of the victims. I know you, too, have suffered. I am so sorry for what each of you has endured. I know that there is no way to repair shattered innocence or to restore stolen childhoods. But I do offer my sincere apologies to all of you for what you have suffered.

Let me take just a short time to explain why I feel it is important to modify the statute of limitations in order to provide an opportunity for these victims of sexual abuse to have their "day in court."

First of all, I am here because there is still the strong likelihood that some perpetrators have not yet been brought to account. That is why I support the one year civil window. I do believe that the abusers need to be exposed. I also believe that this can only be assured if the possibility exists to bring these matters into a civil court of law. By doing this we will increase, as far as humanly possible, the protection from becoming victims of sexual abuse that all children have a right to.

Secondly, I am persuaded that this is the most effective way to make all those responsible, bishops who protected priest-perpetrators as well as priest themselves, truly accountable for this tragedy and to deter similar recklessness or wrong-doing in the future, by any decision-makers, inside or outside the church.

Thirdly, by bringing these cases to full exposure and full accountability we have a better possibility of restoring credibility in church leaders as moral teachers and guides.

In a recent issue of America magazine (December 5, 2005), David Hollenback makes the following statement:

In the United States, the recent scandal of sexual abuse by members of the clergy has also seriously undermined the capacity of the Catholic community to address issues of justice and peace. Through the years since the council, I have been very much involved in preaching, teaching and writing about the church's social mission. In the past few years since the scope of the sexual abuse problem has come to light, I have experienced a new tone of skepticism and even cynicism in the response of some to discussions of the council's social teachings. Often the first words I hear following a talk on social justice are comments that question whether any church official has the credibility to speak about justice at all. Since clerics themselves have committed grave injustices of abuse against young people and since bishops have failed to intervene to stop this abuse or sought to cover it up, more than a few feel that church social teaching ring with hypocrisy.
This has been exactly my experience. It reinforces the statement from the 1971 Synod of Bishops on Justice In The World: "anyone who ventures to speak to people about justice must first be just in their eyes."

When every bishop in every diocese cooperates in bringing about a genuinely just resolution of every charge of sexual abuse, I believe we will once more be perceived as credible moral teachers. Thus what is good for the victims will likewise be good for the church.

Those are my reasons for supporting the window. To allow this may cause pain, embarrassment and sacrifice for our church, especially in the short term. It may cause some hardship for us financially. It might seem easier to keep the evils hidden, to move on and trust that the future will be better. But I am convinced that a settlement of every case by our court system is the only way to protect children and to heal the brokenness within the church.

I urge you to approve this proposed legislation so that justice will prevail, abuse will be prevented, and the healing of victims will proceed.

Thank you.

January 11, 2005, National Catholic Reporter

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