One need not be a Catholic nor an adherent to any faith to be sickened by the Pennsylvania grand jury report that identified 301 “predator priests” throughout the state who abused more than 1,000 children — some as young as 2 years old — over seven decades.
The details are well-known and too heinous to repeat. But what’s lesser-known is that the roughly 900-page report said the strategies deployed by the Catholic Church — deacons, priests and bishops — to respond to allegations amounted to “a playbook for concealing the truth.”
Those strategies included using fellow clergy to investigate allegations of abuse, refusal to explain why abusive priests were removed or transferred to a different diocese, use of euphemisms like “boundary issues” in cases that were clearly rape, and, lastly, not reporting accused priests to law enforcement.
As happened in 2002 after the Boston Globe’s investigative report about the cover-up of decades of sexual abuse by priests, many Catholics are withholding donations and demanding accountability. The Globe investigation led to the prosecution of five priests. But due to Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations on child sex abuse and the deaths of many involved, only two of the 301 accused priests have been charged.
Understandably, many in Pennsylvania and around the country are calling for the statute to be lifted — at least long enough to provide alleged victims a window to receive justice.
In 2013, Minnesota did just that with passage of the Child Victims Act, which opened a three-year window for victims to report cases. Hundreds flooded in, leading to the 2015 bankruptcy of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Similar legislation proposed in New York and other states has faced strong opposition from the Catholic Church. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, has called the proposed one-year window in his state’s Child Victims Act “toxic” and “strangling” for the church.
After last month’s resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, over allegations he sexually abused minors and adult seminarians for decades; after what the pope has called “wounds” that “will not go away” in Pennsylvania; and after what the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has called a “moral catastrophe,” perhaps Dolan and like-minded lawmakers will better understand that it is the crimes against children that are toxic and strangling.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston and president of the USCCB, has rightly acknowledged that the church needs to “make the reporting of abuse and misconduct by bishops easier.” He’s also called on the church to “develop and widely promote reliable third-party reporting mechanisms.”
We remind all clergy, regardless of faith, that the separation of religion and state does not mean anyone is above the law.
No prison sentence, fine or award of damages can ever make up for the abuse of a child. Such crimes, as Pope Francis wrote, “inflict deep wounds of pain and powerlessness, primarily among the victims, but also in their family members and in the larger community of believers and nonbelievers alike.”
We must hope — and yes, pray — that the Catholic Church can reform itself. It remains an important institution and must take every measure to continue to be so. But we must be vigilant and hold all individuals who abuse a child, or fail to report abuse, accountable for what are nothing less than crimes against humanity.