Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. FFRF.org

Clergy abuse roundup: Eight more states launch investigations

Vol. 35 No. 8 October 2018
Sweep it under the rug.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

Law enforcement officials in at least eight states are considering how to investigate potential abuse cases in the Catholic Church after a report from a Pennsylvania grand jury found more than 1,000 victims and hundreds of predatory priests over the course of more than six decades. FFRF and survivors of clergy abuse are also urging the Justice Department to initiate a federal nationwide investigation. 

“The Church’s claim of divine authority gives it coercive power over its congregants that allows it to get away with widespread crimes,” FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor write to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. “Under Catholic Canon law, adherents are required to give a ‘religious submission of the intellect and will’ to their church. For millennia, the Church has used that power to suppress questions, doubts, and dissent. This leads to frequent unprosecuted crimes against child victims who are forced to remain silent by their parents under pressure from, and fear of, the Church.”

Survivors of sexual abuse by priests say the investigation by the grand jury should represent just the beginning of the process. The grand jury report was released in August.

“Pennsylvania and the attorney general there had the courage to take on a very powerful institution,” said Tim Lennon, president of the board of directors for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). “Any time there’s been an investigation, we find similar kinds of systematic coverup, systematic moving around priests to hide.”

Survivors also urged the pope and the U.S. Department of Justice to take steps to prevent more abuses and hold abusers accountable.

“They have plenty of evidence,” said Peter Isely, spokesman for the group Ending Clergy Abuse. “Let’s launch this investigation. Let’s do it now.”

Besides FFRF, SNAP and the Center for Constitutional Rights have also sent a  joint letter to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein demanding an “investigation and prosecution of high-level officials in the Catholic Church” for sexual crimes and cover-ups.

“It is long past time for the US Department of Justice to initiate a full-scale, nationwide investigation into the systemic rape and sexual violence, and cover-ups in the Catholic Church, and, where appropriate, bring criminal and/or civil proceedings against the hierarchy that enabled the violations,” the groups said in the letter.

As for the states’ investigations, each one will take a different approach because of the range of laws concerning the convening of grand juries and who has subpoena power. Attorneys general are gathering historical records from parishes and dioceses to conduct these investigations. The massive stores of private documents relating to sex abuse, compensation of victims, and transfers of offending priests were instrumental in the formation and impact of the Pennsylvania report.

Here are the states that have announced investigative initiatives so far:

Illinois: At least seven priests with connections to Illinois were named in the Pennsylvania report, which prompted Attorney General Lisa Madigan to ask to meet with state church officials regarding the report and sex abuse more widely. The Archdiocese of Chicago has agreed to meet Madigan.

Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke has also called for a new investigation, which the Catholic Church is doing, but she wants the probe to be done by the government, not be left to the Catholics.

Only the civil authorities — who are solely disinterested, not convened by the church itself — can get to the bottom of how prevalent is this problem,” she said.

Kentucky: Deputy Attorney General J. Michael Brown announced that he will seek permission from the state legislature to open a statewide grand jury investigation.

Missouri: Attorney General Josh Hawley is working with the cooperation of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, which requested the probe, to investigate clerical records spanning decades. Missouri’s four other archdioceses are not yet under investigation, although Hawley has already asked them to hand over all available records.

The cooperation of various dioceses is vital to the investigation because in Missouri, the attorney general does not have the power to subpoena documents beyond those voluntarily provided by the church, or to convene a grand jury.

Hawley, who is running for Senate, has appointed a veteran sex crimes prosecutor to head up the investigation. He said the probe “is fast moving,” but he cautioned that the Pennsylvania report took almost two years to investigate and write. Hawley said his office would eventually issue a public report detailing its findings.

Nebraska: Attorney General Doug Peterson has asked (but not subpoenaed) the state’s three dioceses for their records. Likely to be particularly significant is the conservative Diocese of Lincoln, the only diocese in the United States not to subscribe to the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which is a zero-tolerance policy of reporting clerical sex abuse to legal authorities. The diocese is currently investigating six priests for alleged abuse.

New Jersey: Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced the creation of a task force, as well as a hotline for abuse survivors to report their experiences directly with the state. The task force will be empowered to subpoena records from the state’s six dioceses.

The state will be watched closely because the majority of the allegations against ex-Washington, D.C., Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, who is accused of decades of sex abuse against both young seminarians and minors, took place there.

New Mexico: Attorney General Hector Balderas demanded that archdioceses turn over all documentation concerning child sex abuse to his office. Balderas, who has subpoena power but has not yet invoked it, wrote in a public letter that he hopes the church will take the initiative to make “a full, massive disclosure.”

New York: Attorney General Barbara Underwood has subpoenaed each of the state’s eight dioceses for records pertaining to child sex abuse. Her office has also set up a hotline for victims or witnesses of clerical child sex abuse to report incidents directly. The attorney general’s office does not have the authority to unanimously call a grand jury.

Wyoming: Cheyenne police have announced that they are investigating sexual abuse allegations against retired Wyoming bishop Joseph Hart, who has been accused of sexually abusing minors in Wyoming as well as in Kansas City, where he previously served as a priest. The Kansas City allegations first surfaced in the late 1980s and early ’90s. At that time, the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese did not find the allegations credible, but it did pay for counseling for one of the victims. More broadly, state police officials have asked clerical sex abuse victims to come forward.

Victims of abuse file class action lawsuit

Pennsylvania Catholics are suing all eight dioceses in the state, claiming that Catholic leaders there systematically covered up ongoing sexual abuse by priests.

The bombshell grand jury report released in August brought to light the widespread abuse and cover-up within the Catholic Church in the state.

A victim of abuse and the parent of a Catholic school student are inviting others to join them in the class-action lawsuit that they filed Sept. 17 in Allegheny County, Pa.

“This lawsuit is brought because defendants cannot be trusted to act on their own,” they wrote in their request to get others involved. “Indeed, through decades of choosing to defend their predatory clergy members over the children of Pennsylvania, defendants have enabled untold abuse and suffering by children, family members, and others, and have also created a clear and present danger that must be abated to protect the public from future and ongoing harm which is continuing every day it is not abated.”

Bringing the lawsuit are Ryan O’Connor, who says he was abused by a priest from age 10 to 12, and Kristin Hancock, a member of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Both have children in Catholic schools. O’Connor represents the first class named in the lawsuit — victims of clergy sexual abuse — and Hancock, on behalf of her kindergartner son, represents the second class — children currently enrolled in Catholic schools and other programs.

They charge in their lawsuit that the eight dioceses in Pennsylvania are still engaged in an attempt to cover up sexual abuse.

As evidence, they say that at least 20 names in the grand jury report remain redacted because the church has fought to preserve the anonymity of some people accused in the report. And the grand jury report remains incomplete, they argue, because the church failed to document numerous reports of abuse over the years and because church leaders discouraged victims from reporting their sexual abuse at all.

Abuse victims top 3,600 in Germany, study finds

More than 3,600 children in Germany, most age 13 or younger, were sexually abused by Catholic clergy members over the past seven decades, a wide-ranging report has found. The report had not been made public, but the New York Times obtained a copy.

The study, which was commissioned by the Roman Catholic Church bishops’ conference in Germany, found that at least 1,670 church workers had been involved in the abuse of 3,677 children. That is 4.4 percent of the clergy.

The study, conducted by researchers from three universities over more than four years, was an ambitious effort to understand the scale of the abuse — and how it could have been systematically covered up for so many decades.

“We are aware of the extent of the sexual abuse that is supported by the results of the study,” said Bishop Stephan Ackermann of Trier. “It is depressing and shameful.”

They chronicle abuse cases from 1946 to 2014. Every sixth case of abuse involved rape, researchers found, and most of the victims were boys.

Christian Pfeiffer, a criminologist, said the report, damning as it is, is likely to underestimate the full extent of the scandal.

“The report does not give the full picture, and is not fully independent,” he said. “The degree of the cover up is stunning and beyond anything I had expected.”

Half of Dutch cardinals, bishops linked to abuse

A report linking half of the cardinals and bishops who served in the Netherlands between 1945 and 2010 to abuse cases has drawn the country’s Catholic Church into the church’s global sex abuse and cover-up scandal.

The leader of a group of Dutch victims of abuse by Catholic clergy called Sept. 17 for the church to make public all it knows about such cases if it wants to win back trust.

A report by Dutch newspaper NRC linked 20 of 39 bishops and cardinals to abuse. The paper reported that four bishops committed abuse and a further 16 senior clergymen transferred priests who had been accused of abuse to new locations.

The report was based on a 2011 Dutch Catholic Church report about abuse, victims’ testimony to a commission of inquiry and the newspaper’s own research.

Pope meets with U.S. bishops over abuse

Top American bishops met in the Vatican with Pope Francis on Sept. 13 to discuss the sexual-abuse crisis that the leader of the U.S. Catholic Church said has “lacerated” the church.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was himself accused of covering up the actions of an abusive priest in his archdiocese — prompting questions about DiNardo’s fitness to lead reform efforts.

“It’s too early to say, but just looking at the case, it looks very bad. It seems like a violation — is he the guy who should be leading at this point?” David Gibson, the director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham, a Catholic university, said of DiNardo.

Amid the crisis facing the church’s leaders, the bishops who met with Francis said very little about what they discussed.

Hotline swamped with new abuse allegations

Since the Pennsylvania grand jury report’s publication, people have made more than 1,130 calls to the phone line handling clerical sex abuse tips, which is managed by state Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office. The attorney general’s office had to recruit additional staff from other departments to keep up.

Record settlement reached with 4 victims

The New York Diocese of Brooklyn and a co-defendant have reached a $27.5 million settlement with four men who were sexually abused as boys by a lay church education director, reports NBC News.

Each of the men, who have remained anonymous, will receive $6.875 million from the diocese and an affiliated after-school program under terms of the settlement.

It is the largest settlement involving abuse of minors by Roman Catholic Church figures. The men, who are now ages 19 to 21, said in court documents that they were repeatedly raped from 2003 to 2009 by Angelo Serrano, 67, a former director of religious education at St. Lucy’s-St. Patrick’s Church in Brooklyn.