Time for states to address priest abuse

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Headlines of abuse dominated news cycles in August 2018 after the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report released the names of hundreds of priests who had sexually abused children for more than seven decades. Since then, evidence of the global epidemic within the Catholic Church of sexual abuse of the innocent has continued to surface. The Associated Press publishes a new article nearly every week about new investigations, diocese reports, complaints by survivor advocacy groups and continued corruption. This sex abuse does not only mar religious institutions. Since places of worship have acted as the backbone of communities for centuries, this festering wound underlying the fabric of our secular institutions reaches from sea to shining sea.

But the grand jury report was eight months ago, and the public is more numbed than motivated to demand change. The 300 predatory priests’ names that were just released by dioceses in Texas, the confirmation that the Catholic Church has destroyed documents proving they were aware of priests’ predatory behavior and even the confirmation that six Jesuits who worked with Xavier as recently as 2002 were credibly accused of sexual assault read as old news. What is even more stale to read is how states are not stepping in.

Dioceses have conducted their own internal audits to oust sexual predators since the Boston Globe exposed the misdeeds of then-priest James G. Geoghan in 2002. That year, clergy leaders from across the nation committed to a set of policies called the Dallas Charter. These policies seek to prevent child sex abuse as well as make the names of known abusers available to both law authorities and the public for the safety of parishioners.

Fast forward 16 years. Once again, bishops convened for a prayer retreat concerning clerical sex abuse this past December in Chicago. That very day, the Illinois attorney general reported that six Illinois dioceses had failed to name at least 500 individuals in their list of alleged sexually abusive clergy. Each diocese in the report claimed to adhere to the Dallas Charter. Promising to follow rules that hold dioceses accountable to an institution — known to have covered up this exact scandal in the past — is less binding than an eighth-grade chastity oath.

Dioceses and religious orders such as the Jesuits have destroyed documents, coerced victims into silence, sent pedophilic priests to special rehab centers and continued to place them in positions with children for decades. In the last two years, state leaders have begun to step in. The Pennsylvania attorney general organized investigations in his state, and likewise the Illinois attorney general has launched a statewide investigation. By the end of 2018, 13 state attorneys general had undertaken similar statewide task forces — it should be 50.

Certain states’ attorneys general, such as Kentucky’s and Colorado’s, currently do not have the power to launch statewide investigations. State governments can and should alter legislation to allow these investigations or make exemptions. Pundits can fuss over the separation of church and state, but this is a matter of public safety. There would be no hesitation to investigate allegations if minor sex abuse occurred in a private school district or country club.

Investigations alone do not bring justice. Since most reported cases occurred decades ago and exceed the current statute of limitations, credibly accused clergy escape criminal sentencing. This February the Vatican found former archbishop and cardinal Thomas McCarrick of Washington guilty of abuse, but besides being defrocked, this child molester is walking free. States have the power to extend statutes of limitations and expand justice for survivors, but they’re sitting on their hands instead.

Last month saw a four-day summit at the Vatican organized by Pope Francis to address the rampant sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. Unsurprisingly, no new policies were issued by Catholic leadership, and no credibly accused clergy were defrocked.

One of the most substantive outcomes of the summit was that the 190 bishops, cardinals and other leaders were forced to listen to the testimony of four women. A mother stood in front of her religious patriarchs and recounted the abuse of each of her five daughters at the hands of a trusted priest. She was not alone in her testimony, and neither are the clergy as witnesses. Thousands of survivors have come forward to lay traumas that have followed them as second shadows for decades into the glaring light.

Listening is not enough. Survivors are tired of summits. They are tired of prayers and empty internal audits. As state leaders continue to play the role of bystanders while they hold the tools of justice in their hands, they are as complicit in these heinous crimes as the Catholic Church.


Heather Gast is a Campus News Editor for the Newswire. She is a Philosophy, Politics and the Public major from Cincinnati.