Sunday Nov 18

The Crux of the Catholic Abuse Scandal, and How to Fix it

Politicians in the US don’t insist on being called Your Eminence or Your Grace. They don’t ask citizens to kneel before them or kiss their rings. That’s because we live in a democracy. There is, however, a different kind of government. It’s called a monarchy when using polite language, or more bluntly, a dictatorship. In it, those at the top hold virtually all the power and are accountable to no one.

The oldest and biggest example of this system is the Vatican. And in a nutshell, this is why clergy sex crimes and cover-ups continue in the Catholic church. This is relevant now of course because of last week’s scathing grand jury report into six Pennsylvania dioceses. It’s sending shockwaves across the church and beyond.

The report cites more than 300 predator priests, 1,000 identified victims and estimates of “thousands more.” It concluded that church officials followed a “playbook for concealing the truth,” and were “minimizing the abuse by using words like ‘inappropriate contact’ instead of ‘rape,’ assigning priests untrained in sexual abuse cases to investigate their colleagues; and not informing the community of the real reasons behind removing an accused priest,” according the New York Times. “Church officials who protected (predators) remained in office or even got promotions.”

According to one news account, the report included stunning revelations: a priest molested a 7-year-old girl during a visit to a hospital where she had her tonsils removed; priests shared naked photos of abuse victims; a priest arranged an abortion after impregnating a girl he had raped; a priest got a reference letter for a Disney World job after years of complaints about his abusive behavior.

“How could this happen?” many are asking. Based on the 30 years of experience of our organization, the Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), we submit there are some very simple, even obvious, explanations. Consider again the monarchy. Bishops ignore, hide and enable child sex crimes because, as monarchs, they can. Technically, they answer to the pope. But in reality, they answer to no one. (How can one pontiff really supervise 5,000 bishops across the planet?)

Thirty years ago, a Louisiana serial predator priest generated national headlines in the US. In recent years, church officials acknowledged that 6,721 clerics are accused molesters and estimated that 100,000 US kids have been hurt.

But only two US bishops have resigned because of their complicity. None have been demoted, defrocked or disciplined. Only two members of the US hierarchy have ever been criminally charged for covering up. If you have a lifetime gig as “Your Eminence,” and there’s virtually no chance of being punished for shunning victims, hiding crimes, transferring predators, deceiving parishioners and stiff-arming police, why wouldn’t you keep doing what bishops have done for ages? Why risk breaking ranks?

Other factors contribute to this crisis too. One is archaic, predator-friendly criminal statutes of limitations that prevent law enforcement from prosecuting those who commit and conceal heinous child sex crimes. Civil statutes are equally outdated and overly-restrictive, denying victims the chance to expose wrongdoing in court.

Excessive deference to church figures by secular officials also plays a role. For far too long, police, prosecutors and politicians have been reluctant to cross their bishops or embarrass their friends or fellow parishioners. Time and time again they’ve pretended to be powerless, refusing to investigate cases through grand juries. They’ve ignored our pleas to aggressively seek out victims, witnesses or whistleblowers using their bully pulpits and other mechanisms.

But at its root, the church scandal stems from the nearly limitless power of popes and prelates to handle crimes unilaterally, secretively and in-house, with virtually none of the oversight or checks and balances we’re so accustomed to in our democracy. This inherent structural problem in the church is why we push hard to get secular institutions acts. We’re convinced that such institutions are the only real way to protect the vulnerable, heal the wounded, expose the truth and deter more wrongdoing. Only external pressure will bring real change.

Specifically, here’s what we’re doing. We’re calling on state attorneys general across the US to launch grand jury probes like the ones in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Notably, former Illinois State Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke, a devout Catholic, supports this idea. For two years, from 2002 to 2004, she chaired the US bishops first abuse panel.

Along with the Center for Constitutional Rights, we’re urging the US Justice Department to launch a thorough investigation into the crisis, like governments in Australia, Ireland and other countries have done.

In Pennsylvania, we’re prodding local prosecutors to get more aggressive and creative in pursuing bad priests and bishops. With thousands of police, prosecutors and victims across the state, we find it very hard to believe that not a single complicit church official who concealed child sex crimes can be charged now with obstruction, fraud, perjury, destroying evidence, intimidating witnesses, endangering children, or similar offenses.

And we’re urging Pennsylvania’s attorney general to keep fighting to get still-hidden portions of the new report un-redacted. Because, remember, the church is a monarchy - rigid, secretive, all-male and global. Does anyone really believe that monarchs will voluntarily reduce or share their power or reverse centuries-old patterns of self-serving behavior? They’ve had decades to do so but made only token moves when forced to do so by outside pressures. That’s why governmental agencies and actors must step up.

It saddens us that for so long, those who have been most hurt and are still hurting shoulder the burden of pushing for reforms: abuse victims. Now more than ever, we invite citizens, Catholics, along with federal and state officials to help us do what the Catholic hierarchy seems incapable of doing: stopping this devastating damage to children.

David Clohessy is the former director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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