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Institutional Failure to Protect: Within and Beyond the Catholic Church

The #MeToo movement, and its multiple streams including #ChurchToo, have made it clear that the time of maintaining the status quo and prioritizing institutional and professional reputation over victims is ending.

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By Linda Crockett, Director of Safe Communities

From churches, to schools, to sports organizations – we are in a time of massive failure of institutions to protect children and youth. The most recent evidence was the report released by the PA grand jury that documents the sexual abuse of over 1,000 children by 300 Catholic priests in six of the state’s eight dioceses. The other two diocese were the subject of prior grand jury reports with similar findings. The findings overall show predator clergy victimizing children, while bishops and cardinals protected them and often shamed and silenced any victim brave enough to come forward. This is acknowledged in the sobering introduction to the report which reads: 

“We, members of this grand jury, need you to hear this. We know some of you have heard some of it before. But never on this scale.” 

Yes. The scale is larger than the horrifying abuse and cover up within the Boston Archdiocese, the subject of the award winning movie “Spotlight.” As in Boston, the PA diocesan leaders prioritized avoiding “scandal” at all cost. That is not the grand jury’s word, by the way. That was the word used time and again in the church documents entered into evidence. These documents, locked away in the “secret archives” (again, a church word) were only given to the grand jury under subpoena. 

Parents, with little understanding of how child sexual abuse occurs, entrust their children to religious and non-religious organizations in which sexual abuse has flourished for years, often at the hands of leaders vetted with little more than a background check and given trust because of their credentials or spiritual authority. 

The #MeToo movement, and its multiple streams including #ChurchToo, have made it clear that the time of maintaining the status quo and prioritizing institutional and professional reputation over victims is ending. #MetooK12 calls attention to the shocking number of sexual assaults in primary and secondary schools. An AP investigation of school records over a 4 year period revealed an outrageous 17,000 child-on-child sexual assaults in grades K – 12. Failure to protect at Michigan State, USA Gymnastics, the U.S. Olympic Committee and other sports related organizations resulted in the sexual abuse of hundreds of young athletes. 

The Evangelical world has been rocked with high profile sexual abuse cases, among them is the news that the influential mega-church Willow Creek in Chicago had settled a $3 million lawsuit earlier this year when children with disabilities were sexually abused by a volunteer in their “buddy” program. This came on the heels of the disclosures by multiple female staff of sexual misconduct by their legendary founder 

Bill Hybels. Church leadership dismissed the reports and protected Hybels until the public pressure forced him to step aside and the elders to resign. 

Power, control, and privileging the reputation of offenders and enablers has been valued over protecting children. Justice for survivors is lacking and these dynamics have continued to play out in the legal maneuvers to delay this latest PA grand jury report scheduled release at the end of June. Survivors, waiting decades for their story to be told with their perpetrators named, were once again experiencing trauma – with the timing and agenda being controlled by those who abused their power in the first place. A last minute filing by unnamed individuals objecting to their names being included in the report on August 7 resulted in further delays. Finally, on August 14, the last day the court permitted the report to be released, an interim, redacted report was released. Many enablers and perpetrators were named; others were not. But survivors finally had some measure of justice, however incomplete. 

Ahead of the inevitable release, some Bishops scrambled to release the names of offenders. We should all remember that these lists were under lock and key in these dioceses for years and likely never would have seen the light of day had they not been subpoenaed as part of the two-year investigation. Father Thomas Doyle, who has testified before numerous legal bodies about the way the Church handles allegations of child sexual abuse, noted to the grand jury that meaningful change on child abuse has largely been generated by forces external to the church – primarily the media and grand juries. 

I have listened to countless survivor accounts of horrific child sexual abuse and I’ve been in the field of prevention for more than a decade. Yet, after reading the first 100 or so pages of the massive document, I felt physically ill. Many of the victims were boys, but there were girls, too – including five from one family. 

What we call this matters: The Details 

The grand jury made the right decision to include some detailed accounts, because euphemisms are part of the play book used to protect the reputations of offenders and to avoid upsetting congregants. Let’s be very clear: when a priest forces oral sex on a young child and then washes out his mouth with holy water to purify him; or when children are groomed for oral sex by a priest, teaching them that “Mary had to bite off the cord” and “lick” Jesus clean after he was born; when a priest rapes a girl and arranges an abortion when she becomes pregnant; when a boy is forced to stand naked on a bed in a position imitating Jesus on the cross and a group of priests photograph him to add to their child porn collection – this is not a “boundary violation” or “inappropriate conduct.” This is child sexual assault. This is child rape. This is a crime, and a mockery of the God that religious leaders are supposed to represent. We need to say it. And parishioners need to hear it, no matter how uncomfortable it makes them. 

While the new PA hotline to take reports from other survivors is flooded with calls, Bishops are scrambling to assure the faithful that the past is not reflective of the present, citing current policies and practices. Since child protection policy and practice is an area of specialty in the Samaritan Safe Church program that I founded and direct, I have taken the time to read policies posted on websites, and I’ve had conversations with parishioners about the training contents. They would not meet the standards 

we use in our program. Lay leaders tell us their Diocese controls child protection policy and training, and they are not permitted to use models other than those provided by their Bishop. 

The past is still with us

That kind of insularity is precisely what landed the church in its current sad state of affairs. Use of church-run psychological facilities relying on the “self-reports” of offenders are another example. However, unless there is fundamental change of the social norms around child sexual abuse that allow it to take place, even the best policies won’t fix what is broken within the many institutions failing to protect our children. 

The grand jury report notes that based on the evidence it reviewed, it is likely there are thousands more victims. 

While Bishops are busy trying to reassure everyone with something akin to “a long time ago, and in a faraway land, bad things happened – but it’s all over now!” Today’s statement made by the Pope speaks of the suffering of the victims, and rightly names the acts committed against them as “atrocities”. Yet Pope Francis also largely places the sexual abuse as happening in the past, with spokesperson Gregg Burke stating the grand jury found “almost no cases after 2002”. While the report notes that almost all of the cases it investigated are barred from prosecution by the PA Statue of Limitations, charges in two more recent cases in different dioceses have already been filed. One involves a priest who ejaculated in the mouth of a 7 year old. The other assaulted two different boys on a monthly basis for a period of year that only ended in 2010 — and the hotline continues to ring. 

Denial of Justice for all 

Survivors beyond those violated in these dioceses are also impacted. Many express heartfelt gratitude for the work of this grand Jury, and the courage of the survivors who gave testimony. However, the report’s contents are highly triggering and re-traumatizing to read. The vast majority of survivors have not been abused within the Catholic Church. However, they suffer denial of justice due to the fierce opposition by the Catholic Church to elimination of the PA Criminal Statute of Limitations. The Church also opposes the two year window in which any survivor would have the right to file a civil action. 

As we have read in other similar grand jury reports, this one notes that there have been times that police or prosecutors also turned a blind eye to victims, deferring to church officials. In our current context, those deferring are largely PA legislators influenced by the hard lobbying that the Catholic Church has engaged in to stop Statue of Limitation Reform in PA. These senators and representative turn a deaf ear to the pleas of survivors and hide behind protestation that such extension may be unconstitutional, disregarding opinions from experts who argue otherwise – such as Marci Hamilton, one of the country’s leading church-state scholars on constitutional law and reform to state statutes of limitations. One of their own, State Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, a victim of molestation by a priest, has worked heroically for years to make this change, only to be disregarded by colleagues more concerned with protecting institutions than justice for survivors. 

Yet perhaps this time, change will come, and justice will prevail. The grand jury report makes several explicit recommendations, among them is the reform of PA’s Criminal and Civil Statutes, noting that under the current law most of the culprits can no longer be charged because of statutory prohibitions. 

If the leaders in PA’s Catholic Dioceses want us to believe they are sincere in their prolific apologies and reassurances of real change, let each one come out with a public statement saying they will support all of the grand jury’s recommendations, including the two year window to allow survivors currently barred by the 12 year period to file civil charges for child sexual abuse. Legislation introduced previously to extend the Statues adds an exception for child sexual abuse to “sovereign immunity”, which protects state and local government entities such as school districts from civil liability. 

Yet, Catholic officials continue to advance a false argument that reform of the Statutes of Limitations unfairly singles out the Church even when proposed legislation levels the playing field between public and private institutions. Rep. Mark Rozzi, in a March 16, 2016 memo to the PA House of Representatives about adding child sex abuse to the exceptions for sovereign immunity writes, “I have always taken the stance that if it can be proven that a person or entity, public or private, knowingly put a child in harm’s way, then they should be able to be prosecuted. After all, if animal abusers can be prosecuted, why not child sex abusers?” 

Change is up to us. 

Yes – it may well be some parishes and other entities will suffer financial distress from lawsuits having to do with systematic failure to protect. Yes, it may be that some of the good work churches do for their communities will suffer as a result. Yes, innocent people sometimes have to pay for the failure of leaders. However, financial repercussions might just be the only thing that motivates ordinary citizens, religious and secular, to demand real systemic change to hold enablers and perpetrators accountable. 

As adults, we all have a responsibility to protect children from sexual harm. We can no longer rely on those in charge of institutions to do so. 

Our PA legislators, just like leaders in the many other institutions that are failing to protect our children, are also enabling offenders to continue to abuse through their refusal to pass legislation on Statute of Limitation reform. Bills introduced over the past three years go to die in committees whose chairs are influenced by anti-reform lobbyists and who presume to take on the court’s role in deciding constitutionality of enacted law. We can’t change the past. But, as the grand jury notes in its conclusion, “What we can do is tell our fellow citizens what happened, and try to get something done about it.” It’s up to us.