By Marci Hamilton
August 16, 2018

The Pennsylvania grand jury report on clergy sex abuse in six dioceses is a call to action, in part because so few indictments flowed from its documentation of over 1,000 victims and 300 perpetrator priests. It details enormous injustice and institutional malfeasance, but we are left with only two indictments of perpetrators.

The institution and the bishops once again have been permitted to skate free, as though this is not a criminal enterprise in the most classic sense. It’s time to bring the Catholic Church to account for what it’s done.

Charge the church as a corrupt organization

It is natural to ask why the U.S. Roman Catholic Church has not been sued under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, for its systemic cover up of child sex abuse on such a large scale. The answer is that, as currently written, the law does not apply to this situation, because the “predicate act” needed to bring a federal RICO claim cannot be a personal injury like sex abuse.

Lawmakers should amend RICO to include child sex abuse as a predicate offense. That will open the door to curbing the organized sex abuse that is happening across America, not just in the Catholic Church. Such a change could still be challenging due to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA, which gives religious entities—and no other organizations—cover for illegal behavior. RFRA grants religious organizations the right to argue that a federal law burdens their religious freedom unless the federal government can prove the law exists for a compelling interest and applies to the organization in the least restrictive means possible. The bishops likely would argue that every aspect of RICO would have to be applied to it in the “least restrictive means” possible, from discovery to testimony to penalties.

Prosecute the bishops for child endangerment

One of the surprises of the grand jury report is that no bishops were indicted on child endangerment, even though the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently interpreted the state’s child endangerment statute to apply in just these circumstances.

The Philadelphia Archdiocese’s Monsignor William Lynn, the former vicar of clergy, was the first member of the Catholic Church hierarchy in the U.S. to be prosecuted for child endangerment. He was convicted, then appealed with the argument that he didn’t endanger children because he wasn’t responsible for caring for specific children. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court responded forcefully that an administrator is guilty of child endangerment even if not assigned to care for particular children. This argument—that covering up for pedophile priests in a diocese is not endangering children—just doesn’t make sense.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s more expansive definition of child endangerment should have brought at least some of the many bad actors in the report under indictment, such as former Pittsburgh Diocese bishop, and now cardinal, Donald Wuerl. He claims that he cleaned things up, but the report actually states that he participated in the coverup for known abusing priests.

Give the victims power

The single most powerful weapon to bring the Catholic Church to account has been individual victims’ civil lawsuits. But for every victim able to bring such a suit, there are hundreds of thousands across the U.S. blocked from justice by a technicality: the statute of limitations. This includes the thousands of victims in Pennsylvania who have no legal recourse due to the short statutes of limitations. Right now in Pennsylvania, civil claims must be filed by the time victims are 30 years old, and criminal prosecution must begin by the time they are age 50. Given that the average age of disclosure is 52, these limits are patently unfair.

The grand jury report endorses statute of limitations reform—as it should. But what the Pennsylvania victims need right now is the enactment of window legislation. For two years, Pennsylvania would have no civil statute of limitations in child sex abuse cases, and victims who have been frozen out of the system would be permitted to file lawsuits and make their cases against the institutions and perpetrators who harmed them. To be sure, the church is at the forefront of this scandal—but it is not alone. Overall, Catholic Church victims constitute a small percentage of all victims of child sex abuse.

Despite their platitudes, the bishops have exhibited no interest in actual justice for the victims. The Catholic Church has spent millions lobbying against statute of limitations reform state-by-state. To hold this institution to account, it must be subjected to what it lobbies most vehemently against. Lawmakers must cease deferring to bishops on child sex abuse.

Begin a national inquiry

Many politicians do not want to publicly acknowledge the pandemic of clergy sex abuse. But they could. Australia and Ireland have led the world investigating the sexual abuse of children by clergy members: Australia produced the extraordinary Royal Commission Report Into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse and Ireland created the Commission to Inquire Into Child Abuse. World leaders are attacking this problem because they know children continue to be at risk. In the end, the only entities large and powerful enough to curb the abuses by powerful religious organizations are nation-states.

America is letting down its children on a daily basis. Lawmakers fear criticizing religious entities like a vampire fears garlic. It’s time for the U.S. to get real about the dangers within its religious institutions. Voters need to tell their elected representatives to examine their consciences on the issue of child protection. A national commission could lay the groundwork for the many legal reforms needed to end child endangerment in our religious institutions.

Marci Hamilton is the Robert A. Fox Leadership Program professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania and CEO of CHILD USA.

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