I have no faith that the church – from priest to Pope – will change how clergy sexual abuse is handled.
And it appears that others felt, and feel, the same way. Well before the Pope’s February 2019 sex abuse summit in Rome, law enforcement agencies across the country were no longer sitting on the sidelines and waiting for church higher-ups to cooperate:
August 2018: A Pennsylvania grand jury released a 900-page report that compiled testimonies from victims alleging decades of abuse by clergy and other church officials. After a review of internal church documents, the report said there were “credible” allegations against more than 300 “predator priests” in Pennsylvania who sexually abused more than 1,000 children in cases going back to the 1940s.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro told reporters that the testimonies also pointed to a “sophisticated” cover-up by top church officials.
The report’s findings prompted attorneys general in other states – including Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, and Vermont among others – to pursue their own investigations into the issue.
October 2018: Police seized clergy misconduct records from all of Michigan’s Catholic dioceses. The searches took place as part of the Attorney General’s Office investigation into the dioceses’ handling of clergy sexual abuse of minors.
Attorney General Bill Schuette began an investigation in August into all allegations of sexual abuse and assault by Catholic diocesan and religious order priests, as well as any attempts to cover up those actions dating back to the 1950s in Michigan.
December 2018: Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan released preliminary findings of her ongoing investigation into the Catholic Church. While the six dioceses in Illinois have now publicly identified 185 clergy members as having been “credibly” accused of child sexual abuse, Madigan’s investigation has found that the dioceses have received allegations of sexual abuse of at least 500 additional priests and clergy members in Illinois.
The investigation revealed that allegations frequently have not been adequately investigated by the dioceses or not investigated at all. In many cases, the Church failed to notify law enforcement authorities or Department of Children and Family Services of allegations of child sexual abuse.
Among the common reasons the dioceses have provided for not investigating an allegation is that the priest or clergy member was deceased or had already resigned at the time the allegation of child sexual abuse was first reported to the diocese.
Those were prior to the Pope’s February 2019 summit. Following the summit, it appears that plenty of clergy still weren’t raising their hands and cooperating.
So state attorneys general and local law enforcement continue their investigations:
February 2019: Authorities in Nebraska have issued subpoenas to more than 400 Catholic churches and entities requesting records related to child sexual assault, according to the state’s Department of Justice.
The office of Doug Peterson, the Nebraska Attorney General, said, “The department believes that subpoenas are necessary in order to ensure all reports of impropriety have been submitted to the appropriate authorities. It is our goal that all reports of abuse are subject to complete law enforcement review and investigation as warranted.”
February 2019: The three Catholic dioceses of Colorado will open their records to an independent investigator in an effort to provide a full accounting of sexual abuse of children by priests through the decades.
The investigator will compile and make public a list of priests with substantiated allegations of abuse, including where the clergy were assigned and the years when the offenses were alleged to have occurred, under the initiative announced by the Colorado Attorney General’s Office.
Colorado’s former U.S. attorney, Bob Troyer, will lead the independent investigation.
The plan is a hybrid of what has been done in other states. It doesn’t fully involve law enforcement – no subpoenas or a grand jury investigation – and it doesn’t allow the church to investigate itself. Troyer’s report, which will be public, is expected this fall.
April 2019: Georgia attorney general Chris Carr announced that the Catholic Church in Georgia is being investigated by his office over its handling of sex abuse cases. The investigation will be undertaken by the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, the group which represents district attorneys in the state.
“I think people should be prepared for some bad news, revelations that some people don’t want to come out,” said attorney Darren Penn, who represents an unidentified man in a lawsuit alleging abuse at the hands of former Dalton priest Douglas Edwards.
But, Penn said, in his experience, the church still clings to secrecy and obfuscation. “Hopefully, it’ll be different with the state involved,” he said.
May 2019: Dallas police searched the headquarters of the Catholic Diocese of Dallas and other properties as part of the church’s widening sex abuse scandal, police and church officials said.
In a search warrant affidavit, a police investigator said the diocese had failed to reveal a full picture of sexual abuse allegations against a handful of its priests and, in some instances, handed over to authorities incomplete records on the accused.
“Despite assurances from the Diocese’s attorneys that the priests’ files were complete and accurate, I also detailed specific examples where those files were not complete and accurate,” Dallas police detective David Clark wrote in the affidavit, adding that efforts to obtain files about sex abuse claimants were “thwarted” by church officials.
At least 298 clergy members across the state have faced “credible abuse” allegations going back to the 1940s, according to the lists compiled by the 15 Texas dioceses.
May 2019: The California Attorney General’s Office has launched a statewide investigation into Catholic Dioceses over the handling of child sexual abuse allegations – a broader inquiry than was first known.
A spokesman for the California Catholic Conference confirmed that all 12 Catholic dioceses in California were mailed letters from the AG’s office, instructing them to either preserve or hand over documents related to abuse handling.
Mike Reck, an attorney who represents clergy abuse victims, said California’s investigation won’t just hold abusers accountable, but the church leaders who protected them. “It’s not just focusing on individual perpetrators. It is scrutinizing the cover-up and the conspiracy of silence at the highest levels.”
My focus has been on the U.S., but there are investigations going on in many countries. Here are just a few examples, from a February 2019 Associated Press article:
Australia: The government launched a four-year national investigation into all forms of institutional abuse, Catholic and otherwise. The landmark survey found 4,444 people were abused at more than 1,000 Catholic institutions between 1980 and 2015.
Chile: Chilean criminal prosecutors have staged a series of raids on the church’s secret archives to seize documents. They have opened more than 100 investigations into abusive priests and have questioned the current and former archbishops of Santiago about allegations they covered up crimes.
Germany: Last September the German Catholic Church released a devastating report that concluded at 3,677 people were abused by clergy between 1946 and 2014. The researchers who compiled the report complained they didn’t have access to original files, and said there was evidence that some files were manipulated or destroyed.
At the same time, much of the developing world has escaped a public explosion of the scandal, as have conflict zones and countries where Catholics are a minority. That doesn’t mean clergy sexual abuse isn’t happening in these places, only that at present it’s below the radar.
And here’s a final, ironic note:
Vatican City – home of the Pope and seat of the Catholic church – is an independent city-state, governed as an absolute monarchy with the Pope at its head.
Vatican City has no policy on its books to protect children or require reporting of sex crimes to police.
It looks like law enforcement aren’t the only people coming after the church.
Catholics are making their objections known in the best possible way to get the church’s attention – by withholding their money: