Celebrate the Facts!
10/3/2021 2 Comments
The Catholic Church is well-schooled in how to handle the most recent ‘crisis in the priesthood.’ Prominent clergy wring their hands about the victims, commit to reform, and move on with business as usual. Of course, business as usual includes sheltering assets from lawsuits from victims. But there is a new sheriff in town, the United States Department of Justice, and there is a possibility of severe action, including criminal indictments.
Credible abuse is a term meaning an accusation against a priest has some merit. Authoritative sources document there are about 5,800 priests credibly accused of sexual abuse in the United States alone. Unfortunately, there is no way of accurately gauging the number of people those priests abused.
Meta studies provide clear evidence confirming the link between childhood sexual abuse and subsequent adverse short- and long-term effects on development. Effects include posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, suicide, sexual promiscuity, victim-perpetrator cycle, and poor academic performance.
Cover-ups worked when the church could intimidate or shame the victims into silence. The most recent ‘crisis in the priesthood’ occurred in the 1980s and 1990s when abuse victims started filing civil lawsuits against the dioceses where the alleged incidents took place. The Catholic Church shushed these suits with out-of-court settlements with nondisclosure agreements and paid about $750 million from the early 1980s through 2002.
Eight states and the District of Columbia passed laws in 2019 that suspend the statute of limitations on civil sex abuse suits. Legislatures enacted these ‘lookback window statutes’ because of political pressure from public outrage over abuse by men in power.
Survivors of child sexual abuse are filing new lawsuits against Roman Catholic dioceses across the country. 29 U.S. Catholic dioceses and three religious orders have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection during this most recent ‘crisis in the priesthood.’
The Catholic Church designates geographic areas, known as a diocese, with a headquarters that organizes and directs churches within its districts. Each diocese has a bishop, and all the priests within the diocese swear an oath of obedience to him binding him to obey the bishop’s directions. The bishop assigns priests to churches known as parishes and routinely rotated at the bishop’s order.
Struggling businesses use Chapter 11 bankruptcy as a legal process to evaluate and reorganize their assets, allowing them to pay off debts while maintaining enough capital to continue operating. There is a huge advantage when a diocese files for bankruptcy as the court then suspends all civil lawsuits against the diocese, including clergy abuse lawsuits, and partially freezes the diocese’s assets. In addition, the process allows the diocese to amalgamate claims and then limit later claims, limiting financial liability.
Lawsuits and trials lead to testimony and publicity. Bankruptcy ensures a quieter mass settlement that forces an end to existing cases and blocks new ones. A diocese in bankruptcy typically settles clergy abuse victims for about half the value of its assets.
The church leaders incorporate each parish as is the diocese, and despite the direction and supervision by the bishop, lawyers have cleverly argued the parish are discreet entities, thereby shielding the assets of the parishes from civil abuse lawsuits. While the legal mechanism appears to hold, it also seems fictive and is morally bankrupt.
But wait, there’s more. The Catholic Church transfers and reclassifies assets to shrink the assets available to clergy abuse victims. That and Chapter 11’s universal settlements and protections from further claims have effectively limited payouts. Using these methods, the United States Catholic Church has shielded more than $2 billion in assets from abuse victims in bankruptcies.
The Department of Justice opened an investigation in 2018 of child sex abuse within Pennsylvania's Catholic Church, sending subpoenas to dioceses across the state seeking private files and records to explore the possibility that priests and bishops violated federal law for decades. Bishops and other leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in Pennsylvania covered up child sexual abuse by more than 300 priests over a period of 70 years, persuading victims not to report the abuse and law enforcement not to investigate it.
The Department of Justice then sent a request to every Roman Catholic diocese in the United States, commanding them not to destroy documents related to the handling of child sexual abuse. The order includes documents contained in ‘secret archives,’ the confidential files each diocese maintains. The nationwide order instructs them ‘to not destroy, discard, dispose of, delete, or alter’ personnel records in general, and particularly abuse.
The Department of Justice is contemplating criminal charges under the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute, also known as RICO. Passed in 1970, RICO is a federal law designed to combat organized crime in the United States and allows prosecution and civil penalties for racketeering activity performed as part of an ongoing criminal enterprise. Such action may include illegal gambling, bribery, kidnapping, murder, money laundering, counterfeiting, embezzlement, drug trafficking, slavery, and a host of other unsavory business practices.
To convict a defendant under RICO, the government must prove that the defendant engaged in two or more instances of racketeering activity and that the defendant directly invested in, maintained an interest in, or participated in a criminal enterprise affecting interstate or foreign commerce. The United States has used the law to prosecute mafia members, the Hells Angels motorcycle gang, and Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion group, among many others.
That the United States Catholic Church enabled and covered up child rape is indisputable. Whether the United States Department of Justice has the fortitude to prosecute it is unknown.
The iterative pattern of these ‘crises in the priesthood’ and the successful and predictable management and response concludes that only disrupting the Catholic Church’s playbook will solve the problem. The hierarchal structure of the church, the vow of obedience tradition, the lack of involvement by the laity, and the fact that all priests and bishops are men and mostly older men lead one to the inference that only fundamental change will solve the problem and allow the generational wounds to victims to start to heal.
Criminal charges and severe penalties might do some good. The government could use funds derived from these actions to help provide medical care and support to those so profoundly impacted by the abuse. Criminal prosecutions could remove those responsible for enabling and performing these acts and help establish a new culture of compliance and real ‘zero tolerance.’ A consent agreement with the Catholic Church could allow independent oversight of personnel management which could help put the organization on a proper track and help eliminate child rape and its awful consequences in human misery and suffering.
Michael Donnelly investigates societal concerns with an untribal approach - to limit the discussion to the facts derived from primary sources so the reader can make more informed decisions.