Why We Care
It has been a special mission for attorney Joseph H. Saunders to pursue justice for those who have been sexually abused. Joe has handled legal cases in many states throughout the nation including the territory of Puerto Rico. These cases have involved public lawsuits and confidential settlements with the Catholic Church, many protestant churches, the Boy Scouts of America, schools, hospitals, medical facilities, doctors, and psychotherapists. His work has even included a Catholic Canonical trial under the Vatican’s ecclesiastical procedures. In that case a high ranking priest in Pennsylvania was removed from the priesthood as a result of the trial. A report that Joe made to local law enforcement in 2003 resulted in the criminal prosecution, conviction, and a lengthy prison term for a Catholic Priest in Florida who had been abusing young boys for 20 years.
Cases involving childhood sexual abuse require a special sensitivity and skill. Many survivors of childhood sexual abuse are not able to come forward for many years after the abuse. Frequently, the abuse survivors have been intimated by the molester or a powerful institution that employs them and protects them such as the Catholic Church, or in the most recent news the Penn State University football program.
The time delay between childhood sexual abuse and the presentation of the legal claim raises sometimes difficult legal questions regarding what is known as the Statute of Limitations. The Statute of Limitations is different in every state and is a law that states that a person who has a legal claim must come forward and bring that claim within a certain period of years or else it will be too late and the case will be dismissed. These Statutes of Limitations generally are very unfair to those who have been sexually abused as children and appear to most lawyers to bar the claims in most cases. Nevertheless, there are legal theories that can be successful in many states to get around these unfair statutes of limitations. Joe has successfully prosecuted legal claims in many states that appear to be barred by the Statutes of Limitations. The practice of childhood sexual abuse law requires experience and skill in evaluating and dealing with the Statutes of Limitations issues.
Joe has 30 years of courtroom experience to support his settlement negotiation skills. He is Board Certified as a Civil Trial Lawyer by both the Florida bar and the National Board of Trial Advocacy.
Joe has also always been active in the service of his community. In 2011 he was named one of the 13 Magnetic Men of Tampa Bay by the Pinellas Association for Retarded Children (PARC) for his years of volunteer community service. Joe is currently the Chairman of the Board of Directors of Operation Par, Inc. in Pinellas County which is a 500 employee non-profit organization providing mental health and substance abuse and addiction services to thousands of Florida residents on the West Coast of Florida.
How Did The Sexual Abuse Crisis Happen?
While many believe the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church begin in 2002 in Boston, the roots of crisis go much further back and are much deeper than the events reported by the Boston Globe.
In reality, the crisis that germinated in 2002 was only the tip of the iceberg. As we know, John Geoghan was not the first priest abuser nor was Cardinal Bernard Law the only high ranking Church official to bungle the crisis. The crisis is not one of personalities but of an institution determined to preserve itself at all costs. The crisis story is about an institution (the Catholic Church) that was so insular and arrogant that it was incapable of policing itself or ridding itself of corrupt priests and bishops.
The crisis did not occur because of any church teaching or practice. It occurred because the essential mission of the church became self-preservation rather than its stated goal of bringing people to salvation. Once an institution like the Church begins to rot from the head, it is very difficult for reform from the inside.
Once church officials became aware of priests abusing minors, they protected the priests rather than helping the victims. This is why the “incidents of abuse” as the Church likes to call them spread into a crisis. If the hierarchy of the Church, the cardinals and bishops, had determined that they would deal openly and honestly with priest sexual abusers, the crisis could have been averted.
This is why we’ve experienced the crisis now even though the Church has had a history of sexually abusive priests since the beginning of the Church. Priests who have been unfaithful to their promises of celibacy is not a new phenomena in the history of the Church.
What is new, at least in our time, is the manner in which the Church refused to deal with wayward priests. In their excellent work on the subject, Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes: The Catholic Church’s 2,000 Year Paper Trail of Sexual Abuse, authors Thomas Doyle, Richard Sipe, and Patrick Wall detail the history of the Catholic Church and sexual abuse.
In the book, they note that Church has dealt with this problem before with mixed results. In fact, Thomas Doyle warned the US Catholic bishops that the sexual abuse of minors was a major problem that needed immediate and drastic attention.
The bishops paid lip service to Doyle before they ostracized him. The results of the bishops’ refusal to listen to Doyle’s prophetic warning have been calamitous for the Church in the United States.
When the Boston Globe started reporting about Catholic priest sexual abuse in January 2002, no one knew the problem was near epidemic proportions. Each day brought new and gruesome stories of the victimization of young, innocent children who had suffered at the hands of a priest abuser.
When I first encountered the problem I was horrified. The young men who came in to my office that day were in their late 20’s and early 30’s. They recounted to me the horrible abuse each of them had undergone at the hands of their priest. I immediately called the local police. Today, that priest is serving a 30 year prison term as punishment for his crime. I was able to help these young men obtain counseling and compensation for their suffering.
Yet many people still suffer in silence. Many are ashamed or afraid to come forward with this tale of abuse. Today, there are support groups and counselors prepared and able to help those victims. I am dedicated to helping victims of abuse by a clergy member or a Catholic nun or sister.
The Good Ol Boy Network
The hierarchy of the Catholic Church is comprised of men who have risen through the ranks by their loyalty to the institution as well as their ability to raise money.
These men became bishops and cardinals by being loyal foot soldiers. They were trained and educated in an exclusively male environment.
They were taught to be discreet and never speak disparagingly about one another. When a problem arose, they were taught to close ranks and defend the institution at all costs.
Even civil society showed them unquestioning respect and deference. They are not men who are accustomed to having their authority questioned or their motives scrutinized. Their uniform of the black suit and Roman collar afforded them access to a world of power, prestige, and influence.
The background and training of the bishops as well as their status in society led them to believe that they were “above the law” and that civil authorities including doctors, lawyers, judges, and elected officials would defer to them in internal church matters including reports of the sexual abuse of minors.
When the media revealed sordid stories of priests abusing minors, they were offended. Their first reaction was to question the motives and intentions of those who were abused and the reporters who revealed the abuse. It didn’t occur to them to reach out in a pastoral fashion to the victims of sexual abuse. Their next impulse was to guard the institution upon which their lives and careers had been built. The bishops’ defensive posture regarding the sexual abuse of minors led them to attack the victims and anyone who would dare advocate for them. This became a public relations disaster for the Catholic Church. Cardinals were accused of lying under oath during depositions. The Philadelphia Grand Jury Report, issued in 2005, is a scathing indictment of Philadelphia Cardinals Krol and Bevilacqua and calls their actions criminal. The Church’s response to the sexual abuse crisis belies a clerical culture that is only interested in defending the institution of the Church.