The 2018 report of the special Pennsylvania grand jury, which investigated sexual abuse by Catholic priests, triggered a riot of law enforcement activity. Since the report’s Aug. 14 release, more than a dozen states have launched their own investigations of the Church.
The federal government took the first step of its own nationwide abuse inquiry by notice to the national Catholic bishops’ conference. Abuse victims recently sued the Vatican — on racketeering charges — for its alleged role in a conspiracy to victimize our nation’s children.
This burst of activity indicates that there may be energy enough to finally confront our national epidemic of child sexual abuse. Unfortunately, as things now stand, that energy is misdirected: All of the law enforcement initiatives listed above are, as was the Pennsylvania investigation, limited to misconduct within the Catholic Church.
This narrow focus promises to expend scarce law-enforcement resources on one of the few institutions in America that has largely reformed itself after so grievously failing to protect minors from clerical predators. Increasingly, the new focus in the Church should be, and to a significant extent has already become, bishop accountability and misconduct with adults in the seminary and other Catholic institutions.
All the while, the epidemic of child abuse elsewhere is downplayed, if not neglected or even ignored.
The Pennsylvania report is the epicenter of today’s outcry against the Church. What does a sober assessment of its findings reveal?
The report depicts a gross pattern of priestly abuse and episcopal malfeasance and details several particularly nauseating criminal encounters that make one grateful for Dante’s images of hell.
The vast bulk of the incidents reported occurred, however, between 1960 and 1990. Of the 680 alleged victims in the Pennsylvania report whose claims are tied to a specific year, only 23 claimed that they had been abused since 2002. The report did not identify any priest with a substantiated claim of abuse who was still in active ministry.
Of the five priests accused in the report of abuse since 2010, four have been criminally prosecuted. The fifth was not indicted by the grand jury, even though the criminal statute of limitations had not expired against him. The most recent incident of alleged abuse for which the grand jury specified a date occurred more than five years ago. The incident was reported to law enforcement, and the priest was suspended from his priestly duties.
On the other hand, there is still a flood of child sexual abuse outside the Church. Apart from the almost unbelievable depravity in public institutions of higher learning, such as that affecting gymnasts at Michigan State and within the football program at Penn State, there are these sober statistics: Since 2002, more than 600 schoolteachers in non-Catholic schools in Pennsylvania have been disciplined for abusive or other inappropriate behavior with children. Chicago public schools alone have investigated 430 cases of employee sexual abuse of children since 2011. Nationally, insurance companies receive around 260 reports per year of sexual abuse of a minor in Protestant churches.
By way of contrast, the average age (if you will) of all the Pennsylvania report cases is 40 years old. The Catholic Church’s independent national audit for 2017 found only 24 allegations of sexual abuse of a minor. Only six of these were substantiated.
Why, then, are our nation’s prosecutors choosing to single-mindedly pursue Catholic cases that are, on average, several decades old and which are, in any event, almost certainly barred by the relevant statutes of limitation?
The retroactive repeal of criminal statutes of limitation is unconstitutional. But — importantly — this isn’t necessarily so with civil statutes. Thus, some state attorneys general and prosecutors seek legislation opening a look-back civil “window” of opportunity to litigate very old cases of abuse and financially punish perpetrators and institutions.
These proposals should be considered sympathetically, but also critically, for there are good reasons why lawsuits should be filed in a timely fashion. Not least among these reasons is the fact that human memories fade over time, evidence is lost, and some witnesses become unavailable due to death or disability.
Even so: If criminal statutes of limitation for child abuse are to be extended prospectively, and civil statutes changed retroactively, they should in no case prejudicially target the Catholic Church or any other religious body.
Justice, as well as First Amendment guarantees of fairness to religious communities, require instead that they be applied with equal force and equal penalties and conditions across the board, including other public and private institutions.
The sex-abuse epidemic is not a political toy, nor a career tool for ambitious prosecutors and attorneys general. It is a countrywide human catastrophe. The unpleasant truth is that, by hyperfocusing on the Church, the energy available for finally facing up to the national abuse crisis will be dissipated, without taking up the very hard work of instigating reforms in public schools and other institutions, similar to those enacted by the Church in 2002 — which, however late they may be, do work.
Gerard Bradley is a professor of law at the University of Notre Dame and a former assistant district attorney in New York County, New York.